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!”

1987: First Hair Cut

“Jenny, Daddy’s got to go get a hair cut. Look at me. I look like a friggen wild man. Ugh. Well it’s kind of difficult to get your hair cut when you work sixteen-hour days in the kitchen. And my hair grows too fast. Every two weeks I need a cut!”

Dad says this to me as he looks in the mirror and holds chunks of his hair straight up in the air.

“Well, Daddy’s exhausted. I’m going to take a quick half hour nap here on my break. You okay?”

I say yes by glancing up at him.

“Good. Just play with your toys while Daddy rests.”

While Dad snores, I comb my favorite My Little Pony’s mane. She’s pink with a rainbow painted on her rump.

After a few minutes, I begin to worry about Dad’s problem. Maybe he won’t yell so much if you can cut his hair for him…

Usually Dad’s favorite barber has “The Three Stooges” playing on small television in the waiting area. But sometimes, I watch barber Joe instead. You can do it. Just like barber Joe.

I sneak into the kitchen to look for scissors. I see a big pair with orange handles in the junk drawer.

I hesitate while I watch Dad’s head hangs over the corner of the bed. This won’t be hard. You just squeeze the hair between your fingers and cut it with the scissors.

 I work slowly not to wake him. I like cutting hair. Daddy is going to be so happy when he wakes up.

 After I’m finished, I admire my work. Then I put the scissors back in the drawer. “Jenny always put everything back in its proper place. Every time! Do you hear Daddy?”

 Dad starts to wake up, but he’s still groggy. I clench my rainbow pony and wait patiently for Daddy to notice my work.

He walks to the bathroom. “Holy shit. Mother Fucker. Jennnyyyyyy!!! What did you do to Poppa’s hair?!”

He doesn’t like it?!

 Confused, I say, “I cut it for you so you didn’t have to go to the barber.”

I cower waiting for him to spank me.

But instead he starts laughing, uproariously.

“Ahh shit, you’re a funny little girl, Jenny Leigh. Poppa didn’t know I was going to get a haircut that soon. And even though I have a few bald spots, I guess you did a pretty good job for a five year old kid.”

He tilts his head from side to side as he examines the bald patches, “Fuck it, it’s only hair. It’ll grow back.”

Pheww!

 “Oh and Jenny, since you did such a good job, why should Daddy waste $8 getting a haircut at the barber shop. You might as well do it from now on!”

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.

1986: Premonitions

We ride the bus to the Aviation Mall. Once inside, we walk to a cluster of phone booths. I notice the enameled blue bell near the coin slot. I wonder how a phone works. Dad inserts a few quarters and presses the square number buttons. I don’t know who he’s calling until I hear him say my Mother’s name, Deborah.

“Deborah, It’s Thomas. Have you been watching the news with this shuttle?”

I can’t hear her response.

“I predicted that, you know. Do you remember when I called you before it went off and said Deb I have a bad feeling about the shuttle; it’s going to blow up.”

I don’t remember him making this phone call to her. I wonder if she remembers.

Then Dad begins to raise his voice, “Come on Debbie. It’s Jenny’s first year going into Kindergarten, and you are leaving? Who is this man anyways? So you are just going to move to California with a man you only knew for a few weeks? What about your other kids?”

I don’t have visitation with my mother because Dad carries a piece of paper in his pocket, which proves that he owns me.

He always says, “Jenny, even before you were born, Daddy knew I wanted another daughter. I had a premonition. I saw everything…my ex-wife…re-married to a young guy. And Daddy knew that I would end up alone with you. When your Mother was unhappy, and wanted out, I told her to take the car, take the money, but give me the baby. So I made her sign this.” He unfolds a fragile looking piece of paper. It’s a contract written in her hand stating: “I, Deborah Lee give Thomas Paul full rights and custody of Jenny Leigh.” They both signed and dated it.

Dad says he’s a psychic. Not a phony like the rest of them. He told me about when he was younger and he predicted that President Kennedy would be killed.

 “Jenny, I was riding the bus to work one day, and just looking out the window when a cloud appeared in the shape of President Kennedy’s face. He said to me ‘Thomas, they are going to kill me.’ I asked the woman sitting next to me if she saw that cloud. Of course, she didn’t. Then I told my wife, right away, after getting home. She thought I was crazy. But wouldn’t you know it, two weeks later, I come home and she was crying on the bed with my mother. I thought she lost the baby, but then she told me the President had been shot! Kennedy knew the bastards wanted him dead and he told your Father.”

On my first day of school, Dad kneels down to meet my eye as he gives me some instructions.

“Jenny, I don’t want you crying like all these other kids. Little whine-blatts. No you have to be strong in life because it’s just you and Daddy.”

He snaps his fingers, saying, “see this, as fast as Daddy just snapped his fingers you will be graduated from school. That’s how time works. It goes so fast.”

“And don’t forget, Daddy keeps this paper your Mother signed in my wallet at all times in case anyone ever tries to take you away. Trust me, Jenny; she didn’t want you! But there is something very important and you have to listen to Daddy because this is a matter of life and death. If your Mother ever shows up at your school, then you SCREAM, “kidnap!” Do you know what Daddy means by screaming? I mean bloody-murder like I taught you to do if a stranger tries to touch you. Then run and go get your teacher.”

I don’t blink or breathe when he gives me these instructions.

1985: The Clearview Motel

I am my father’s last daughter. My name is Jenny. My father was 40 when I was born, and he had my whole life planned before I was conceived in my mother’s womb. “Jenny, you are not going to end up like Poppa did with no education and no family to stick up for you, you are going to be an A-student and get into college. You have to go for 12 years to college so you can be a doctor and maybe find a way to cut these bumps off Daddy’s body someday. Just remember, never trust anyone, not even your husband and children someday. You and Daddy rode the dragon’s breath to get here, and Poppa won’t give up.” I am 4 years old when he says this to me. Then he asks me if I know what the dragon’s breath is? I shake my head “no.” He proclaims, “God told me to go find your mother and God showed me what you were going to look like and everything. Poppa knew your mother wouldn’t stay with us because it wasn’t God’s plan. His plan was just for you to be born and do great things, but it’s not an easy road for you and Pop. That’s what I mean when I say we rode the dragon’s breath.” I give him a blank stare back. He keeps talking but I zone him out somewhat. In my mind I see a large dragon breathing fire, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

He finishes saying this as the automatic door to the Grand Union opens to behold the sticky asphalt parking lot, which is the passageway between the store and our cockroach-infested motel room. The long windowless hallway we walk down to reach our room seems familiar: it’s home. The contents of the room are simple: one steel door, a bathroom, a small telephone desk with chair, two queen beds, and a 19” television set on a brown stand. Dad walks over to the window to shut the blinds. “Daddy’s gonna lay down for a little while. I want you to practice your ABC’s the way Daddy taught you. Remember to stay in the lines and make all the letters the same size.” I sit down at the desk, and open my practice pad. There are two solid horizontal black lines and a dashed line in the middle. Those are the lines I can’t cross, make sure the letters are all the same size and distance apart. It’s going on 3:00 p.m. Dad already taught me how to tell time. I feel hungry. I had a Slim Jim for breakfast. No lunch yet, but it’s better to let Daddy rest for as long as possible. Tiptoe! Let this sleeping giant lie! I need to concentrate on writing my letters so Daddy doesn’t get mad again like he did yesterday when my practice sheets weren’t perfect. His shouting echoes in my ears, “Jenny what do you call this horse shit? You think this is gonna work when you get to school? No! Daddy told you a million times… look; this fucking letter is way bigger than this one… fucking horrible work! It’s a tough, mean world, and you have to be better than the rest of the kids. Don’t you fucking understand that you only have Daddy and no mother!” He proceeds to rip the paper to shreds, but I focus on the veins bulging from his neck, and the ominous tone in his voice. I want to understand why he is so angry; I want to do better next time. I hope he lets me live. I promise Daddy I won’t mess up again.

After I finish my ABCs, Dad is still sound asleep. I’m relieved, but bored too. So I walk into the bathroom, the only room with a door. I look at myself in the mirror and try to imagine myself with a tail. I turn around and press on my tailbone, imagining a grand tail covered in caramel colored fur. The thought makes me laugh hard, but I have to be quiet. The more I try to be quiet, the more I giggle. Jenny, don’t you ever giggle. Girls giggle, but Daddy is raising you to be a lady and real ladies don’t giggle. Suddenly, I’m startled to realize that Dad woke up. “Jenny what are you doing? You must be hungry. You haven’t eaten anything since 10:00 this morning, and its 6:00 at night. Are you hungry?” I barely nod my head and shrug my shoulders. “Well answer Daddy: yes or no. Okay, I am gonna go down to that little gas mart and get us some snacks…maybe some of that good sharp cheese and crackers and a grape soda. But first Daddy’s gotta check the results of the late double.” He flips on the TV set. “Jenny look at this. The goddamn son-of-a-bitches cheat! Fucking jockeys! I can’t believe a 30-to-1 beat out the favorite. Now you know these bastards cheat.” Dad flips off the TV in disgust. “Come on, let’s go see if they’ll let Daddy charge some cheese and crackers for us to share until I get my unemployment check in a couple days.”

The next day my mother visits. My mouth hangs open in awe and I stare at her in wonder because she is so beautiful. Her hair shimmers with copper and her skin is as radiant as rare fresh water pearls. She walks over to the bed and slides off her matte leather cherry red high heel shoes. I study the red gems while she talks to my Father. After a while, I slip one of the heels on my tiny feet, and then the other, and I begin to clomp around until they see me and start to laugh. “Thomas, look at Jenny Penny in my shoes.” Jenny Penny is my mother’s nickname for me. I don’t hate my nickname because I am flattered that she thinks about me enough to give me one. As fast as she appears, she’s gone.