1995: The Martyr

After school, Dad and I stand in mom’s apartment. I peer out the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window that overlooks Glen Street. Someday you’ll live in a real house like one of the lawyers or doctors on this street.

Mom startles me from behind as she grazes my new mulberry-hued corduroy skirt.

“Look at your cute legs, Jenny Penny! Wow, Tommy! I’m surprised you let Jenny wear a skirt that short to school. The boys must love her cute little body.” My face turns bright red as I tug at the edges of my hem hoping it will magically grow longer. Thank God she can’t see you.

 “No boys better be looking at her. They know better because I’ll show up at that school with my bat. Besides, you know Jenny, Deborah. I’ve been letting her pick out her own clothes since she was seven. She insisted.”

 Mom persists a while and I can feel myself growing angry. Actually she doesn’t know me. She wasn’t around, so it’s none of her business what I wear.

Dad changes the subject. “Debbie, listen, forget about Jenny for a moment. I came to talk to you today about something really important.”

I retreat to Mom’s pastel sofa in the living room to give them privacy. But you’re still within listening distance. As Dad begins to talk, I trace a line around a light blue leaf so that I won’t bite my nails.

“Debbie, they’re going to kill me someday. Very soon. And I need to make sure you’re ready for that day. You and Jenny.” Who is going to kill him? Oh no. Not this again!

 “Tommy what are you talking about? Someone is out to kill you?”

“No Debbie. This is very serious. Once I get Gabazar’s message out to the people, I’ll be killed. You know like President Kennedy. And all my other predictions. I’ve already seen the future. God gave me a job, and I have to finish it soon.”

“Jesus, Thomas! That’s crazy talk. How do you know this Gabazar is God anyways? I mean couldn’t he be the devil trying to trick you?”

Dad explodes and walks out to the living room. Shit you can’t hide any longer.

 He continues making vigorous hand gestures, “Of everyone Debbie, how can you question me when you’ve witnessed so many of my predictions?” Pointing to me, Dad charges, “Jenny, you better tell your mother that I’m not joking around. You and Daddy have talked about this many times already. You tell your mother about the cross and all the other signs.”

Instead, I tear up. My fingers are still tracing the stitching in the couch but the room appears blurry. Don’t let the tear drop fall. Don’t! I clench my fist now, but it’s too late. I bury my head in Mom’s pillow. Crybaby!

Mom comes over and gently places her hand on my back. Why can’t she comfort you like this all the time? Why did she have to leave? She’s the normal one. Why does she hate you so much?

 “Thomas! Look at what you’ve done! You’ve upset our daughter. You can’t talk about being shot or killed or whatever right in front of her like that.”

I let time stop to record this moment in my mind. Has she ever stuck up for you before? Does this mean she loves you?

 “I don’t care, Debbie. She has to get used to it sometime. And so do you. My whole family, too. I’m not lying to protect you people any longer.”

For some reason I feel safe as Mom continues to rub my back so I let go and cry some more. The pillow beneath me soaked with tears. Are you crying because he’s going to get killed or because you want him to get killed?

 After a few minutes I sit up. He’s going to kill you on the ride home before they ever kill him, anyways.

 But Mom offers, “Hey, why don’t you two stay for dinner. I’m making spaghetti. Plenty for everyone. And I know you love my meatballs, Thomas.” She used his full name again. Oh please let us stay.

 Dad shrugs and accepts. He can’t resist the attention. The rest of the night she butters him up with compliments and pays him plenty of attention to take his mind off Gabazar.

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1987: Our Business

After his unemployment check arrives, Dad rents another summer cabin even though it’s November. The landlord man told us there’s no heat for the winter. Dad nods as the owner hands him the keys. Brown key tag. Number 4.

While we make our way down a stone path to the cabin, Dad says, “Jenny, that won’t be a problem for you and Daddy. We’ll just leave our coats on all winter. And besides, what does Daddy always teach you? When you’re cold you don’t think about the cold. When you’re in pain, you don’t think about the pain. Just like they taught us in the military.”

Once we step inside, the air feels the same as outside. Dad asks me to help him unload the trunk. “Here’s a light box for you.” The brown box pulls my arms nearly to the ground. I clench my stomach as we make our way back down the stone path. Don’t drop it. Don’t drop it.

Next week, Dad scatters things around the cabin that I haven’t seen before. A television, a lamp, an old radio, and two wooden tennis rackets. Did he take those from summer camp?

“Goddamn money’s still tight. Daddy’s gonna have a little sale, here and try to get me some pony money. And maybe a little extra so we can have some sharp cheese later.”

A man that I’ve never met walks around the cabin. He eyes the old T.V. set.

The man asks my father, “Does the T.V. work?”

Before Dad can reply, I say proudly, “No. It’s broken.”

The man looks disappointed. Dad tries to sell him the radio instead. “You know sir, that T.V. worked yesterday. Maybe it just needs a new fuse.”

But the man leaves empty-handed. Oh no.

Dad walks up to me and bashes me hard in the nose. The pain shoots up through my nostrils into my brain. I can’t breathe for a long time. It’s cold and stingy. Will it ever stop?

“That’s for goddamn telling someone our business. You better listen up because your Father is only going to say this once; our business is our business. No one needs to know anything! Do you understand me, cunt?”

I stare at him as my organs quiver.

“And I better not see one fucking crocodile tear out of you. It’s your fault if we starve this week!”

Should you be quiet? Or are you supposed to lie?

Only bad people lie. So you just stay quiet forever.

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.