1995: A Pound of Butter

“Come on, Jenny. We have to drive that garage—the one where the guy inspects Daddy’s car—no questions asked. Before I get in trouble with motor vehicle.”

I throw my Camp Chingachook sweatshirt over my head. The sleeves tatter at the edges and the raised letters begin to peel off. “Is that what you’re wearing out of the house, Jenny?”

Nodding, I glance at my black fabric mary janes. Yes. We’re going to a musty old garage. Not church.

“Alright I guess you look good enough for the garage. But maybe you should change into something nicer when we get home.” Fine. Yup I said it in my head. Fine. I flinch wondering if he can read my thoughts.

Periodically, I look up from my book as Dad drives to our destination. Crossing the bridge. Joy store. Where you almost died.

 “Goddamn motherfucker.” Huh? What now?

“The bastard is closed.”

He is? Oh yeah. Duh. “Closed” sign.

Dad investigates the situation further. “Well it looks like you and Daddy are screwed again. This guy was perfect. You drove in—flashed your lights—that was it. No emergency brake check—no nothing. Fucking New York State laws. He probably got caught violating the inspection codes.”

Shit. What are we going to do? Will Dad get in trouble? Will it be like the time he didn’t pay his car insurance and we had to drive all the way to Albany to renew his revoked license?

When we arrive home, Dad skims his address book. I retreat to my room so I can finish The Good Earth. I repeat the author’s name in my head each time I see the cover because it’s pleasing and unusual. Pearl S. Buck.

Dad thunders upstairs, “Hey Jenny. Come on. We gotta drive to my nephew’s house.” Which one?

I blink, confused.

“You’ve never met him. My nephew Ken. You know Daddy has over 400 nieces and nephews.”

I wonder how Dad knows the way as we meander through the back roads to get to Ken’s house. Who is Ken and how come you never met him at one of the many family funerals?

We pull in and find the garage door open. Ken slides out from underneath a truck he’s working on. Dad extends his hand to Ken. “Nephew! It’s been too long. How have you been?”

“Been pretty good uncle Tommy. Keeping busy.”

‘Thanks for helping me out of this bind, Neph. The thing is…the car runs perfect…I just don’t have the back brakes hooked up now and I don’t have any emergency brake. The guy who used to inspect it up in Warrensburg went out of business.”

“It’s no problem Uncle. I can take care of it for you.”

“You’re the best, Ken.” Dad flips a thumbs up and grins in my direction. “My nephew. One of many. They’re all good kids. Uncle Tommy loves every one of my nieces and nephews.” So why did we ever go to Uncle George when we could have just come to Ken?

While Ken finishes up, his wife Cindy enters the garage and gives Dad a big hug. Dad has the weirdest family ever. You’re like the niece in the Munsters show. The one who doesn’t fit in.

“You’re all set, Uncle!”

I feel Dad’s relief. “Ken. Do you like cookies?”

“Of course. Look at me!” Ken shakes his stomach. Dad mirrors him. Twins.

“Well, I’m going to bring you my famous chocolate chip blondie bars. You’ve never had cookies that good in your life. I’ll drop them off tomorrow afternoon if you’ll be around?”

“Sounds great!”

Dad and I make the chocolate chip cookies that night.

My mouth waters, but Dad insists on giving the whole half sheet tray to Ken. “This is what you do for people when they do you a favor, Jenny. Daddy’s trying to teach you how to be a good person someday.”

Two days later, Ken’s wife, Cindy calls Dad.

I wonder if something’s wrong with the car. Did Ken change his mind? Can you take an inspection back? Did he get in trouble or something? Maybe they just called to say thanks for the cookies…

Dad keeps repeating, “My God, Cindy. I’m so sorry. That’s horrible. I had no idea that…”

After he hangs up, Dad emerges from behind the trifold divider shaking his head. Well, what is it?

“Jenny, Ken’s dead!”

But…but…we just saw Ken yesterday. Yesterday we saw Ken in his garage and he was alive!

“Jesus, Jenny. Your Father killed my own nephew.”

You killed him? But when? How?

“The cookies. The motherfucking cookies. I make them with a whole pound of butter. A whole motherfucking pound. You have to make them that way. Christ! I didn’t know he had a heart condition. He was only fifty years old.”

Wait how can a chocolate chip cookie kill someone?

“For fucks sake. I didn’t know he was going to eat the whole sheet tray in one night. He ate a pound of butter. Two cups of sugar. The thing is—Cindy said she wasn’t mad. She said Ken died happy. She said he just couldn’t stop eating them—he said they were the best cookies he ate in his life. She said it was an accident. But still your Father is very upset about this.”

This is very confusing. You said we were making the cookies to repay Ken. And they killed him.

“Well, looks like we have another funeral to attend. You know what Daddy always says, too: People die in threes. So somebody else is gonna kick the bucket before long. All I know is: I’m going to outlive them all—my whole family.”

Hopefully not. And besides, if you’re trying to teach me to be a good person—as you put it—then why do you say these shitty things about people? Poor Ken and Cindy.

I trudge upstairs and open my closet to make sure my black dress is clean.

1997: Training to Win

“Jenny if you want to do this cross country shit, it isn’t gonna be like last spring when you ran track. Daddy’s going to be your coach. No more galloping like you’re a motherfucking horse. That’s not running.” Dad shakes his head in disgust.

“Dad I had shin splints.”

“No wonder! The way you ran.” Well maybe if I could have done a sport before sixteen years old…maybe then I wouldn’t be the 7th grader afraid of playground slides, and the 8th grader who couldn’t stand up on roller skates, and now the girl who can’t run.

“Don’t worry, if you really want to do this thing, Daddy’s going to train you my way. The Marine Corps way.”

I glare at him and avert my gaze. I’ll just do it according to my real coach.

“You’re going to have to make Daddy a promise though: You can’t tell anyone that you’re training. If one of your friends asks, you tell them that you haven’t been practicing. Loose lips sink ships, you know.”

Jesus. I’m not that competitive. I just want to run. I want to be with my friends. And not totally suck.

I nod to satisfy Dad’s terms.

“B—but you can’t run with me, Dad.”

“Of course not. Daddy’s too old and fat now. But back in my younger years—you can ask your mother or any of your sisters—Daddy was fast. Man could I run.”

I stare at him confused. You’ll have a heart attack if you run with me now.

Dad winks and grins. “I’m going to ride my bike alongside you. That way I can time you. And make sure some fucking psychopath doesn’t try to kidnap you.”

I try to envision Dad riding his bike slow enough to keep pace.

“Don’t worry about your Father. I’ll manage the bike.”

I walk past Dad and head for my room.

“Where are you going, Jenny?”

“To my room.”

“Training starts now.”

“Umm-okay—well.”

“Nope. And Daddy’s no easy trainer. But better than my drill instructors. The bastards used to throw a 50-pound foot locker on Daddy’s chest.”

“For today, because I don’t have weights for your ankles and wrists, you’re going to run with a backpack on.”

“But—coach said…”

“Fuck the coach. Daddy knows how to make you a winner. You need the extra weight. That’s how they train champions.”

Dad loads up my knapsack and we go for a jog. Four loops around the block. One mile.

When I turn the corner toward the complex, my face begins to burn. My stomach turns.

“Don’t slow down now. Harder. You have to push really hard for the last bit. Come on! Daddy knows you can do it!”

Shut up, you bastard. I’ll push harder. Pretending I’m running to the ends of the earth. Faster. Anything to escape you.

My feet don’t stop when I reach the front door. I push into the brass letter “C” with my right hand.

Holy shit. You’re going to die. Or throw up.

I bend over. Grip my abdomen. Wheeze unevenly.

“Jenny, what the fuck are you doing? This is the most important part. Stand up and breathe normally! When you feel like it’s going to kill you, you have to breathe normally.”

One day, I’ll kill you. Lay off!

I attempt to stand and take breaths. Shit. It’s actually helping.

“See. What did Daddy tell you? And your time was great for our first run together. Just wait until you start school next month!”

God this is going to suck. But you know how this has to go. You have to do it his way. And then you can have something. You can fit in. At least a little bit.

I turn the faucet on cold and fill my glass with water. Gulp. Gulp. Guzzle.

“Hey. Watch how fast you’re drinking that water! You’re stomach is going to blow up huge!”

You’ll never do anything right. Get used to it.

The phone rings. Dad picks up before the third ring.

“Oh hi, Nancy. Yeah Jenny’s here. How are you doing? That’s good. And how are your parents?”

Poor Nancy. Just give me the phone already.

Dad, sweet as a peach says, here’s Jenny!” to Nancy. He glares at me during the exchange to remind me of our deal.

“Hi Nancy.”

“Hey what’s up? I just got my cross-country letter in the mail from coach today. It’s early this year.”

“Oh really? I didn’t get mine yet.”

“Probably because you’re new to the team. I haven’t started practicing yet. I’m lazy this summer and I like it that way.”

“Haha!”

Dad glares at me through the divider slats as he rocks back and forth.

“So have you starting running yet, Kambie?”

“Oh, um—well—no.”

“Oh thank God. Yeah. I’m not going to start more than a couple days before we start practice. I just want to make sure you’re not going to practice. Or else we could practice together.”

Fuck. Lying is the worst. And you’re bad at it. Thank God this is over the phone.

“Hey. No. That’s a good idea, but I’m lazy too. Maybe in a few weeks.”

Dad motions for me to get off.

“Okay, Nancy. It was good to chat. Listen, I gotta go. But I’ll call you soon.”

“Good, Jenny. I know you don’t understand me now. But one day you will. You’ll understand everything.”

Yeah. Yeah. This better not be like that middle-school class-president shit. The shit that made all of my friends hate me.

1994: Another Act of God

For Easter break, Dad allows me spend the night at my friend Lauren’s house. Lauren’s parents buy all the brand-name snacks like Doritos and Fruit Roll Ups. And they don’t nag us while we squeal over Dirty Dancing.

Dad’s hyper after I return home the next day. You’ve been away for more than an hour—eye roll—so you know this is how he’s going to behave.

“Jenny, you’re not going to believe what Daddy found this morning while you were at Lauren’s!”

I never ask what. I just wait for his words to terrorize the air.

He strides over to the front door and points to the spiny green mat outside. This was lying there, perfectly, outside our door.”

In the palm of his hand he holds a small tree branch. Tree branches fall all the time, right?

“Do you see it Jenny?”

I narrow my eyes in confusion. Nope.

“God left this for your Father! It’s a branch shaped exactly like a cross. Right outside our door. Laying there. Just like this! Can you imagine the odds of a tree branch blowing off in the shape of a perfect cross and landing dead center on our door mat!”

No but I can imagine what the authorities would say if they knew I lived here with you. Please let this be one of his 24-hour notions.

 “This time your Father’s not giving up. Seven years ago when you were only a little girl, God came to me in a dream and told me his name. But I forgot it when I woke up. Well, I didn’t tell you but last week God came to your father again. But this time he kept me awake all night so I couldn’t forget. God said to me ‘Thomas, you must tell the people they can have whatever they want and do whatever they want. And my real name is Gabazar.’ He kept your Father awake all night repeating his name, Gabazar. And his message to the people.”

You know God doesn’t do things like that. Not that you have conversations with him. There was that dream about Jesus when you were 8 years old. But you didn’t go around telling everyone that Jesus gave you sparkly pastel fairy dust.

Hurry think of something to escape! 

“Dad I have to finish my math assignment for tomorrow. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”  At least he can’t check over math homework.

Despite my breath of relief for the afternoon, I am wrong.

The branch shaped like a cross doesn’t turn out to be one his 24-hour notions.

“Jenny, Daddy’s worried about just leaving this cross lying around when we leave the house. I mean what if this place burned down. I need a way to protect it and display it. I want to have a giant wooden cross carved, and then I’ll whittle out a special opening for this one to fit in.”

Dad traces the curves of the branch with his index finger as if he’s mentally measuring. Hatching his plan.

“That way, when I walk through the streets bringing God’s message to the people, I can carry this.”

You can divorce your parents, right? He can’t be serious. This is far even for him.

“You know they’re probably going to kill your Father, right?”

Who, the voices in your head?

“They always kill people who tell the truth. Your Father will die a martyr. I can’t help it. God chose me. He chose Moses once and now he chose your Father. We are the first two of God’s new chosen people, the Gabazarians.” Refusing to look at him, I lower my gaze, counting bits of carpet pile—praying that the real God will send my real Father to rescue me.

Convinced of his calling, Dad hand-writes what he calls an official church document for the Gabazarians. He brings the document to the notary, and hangs it with a single blue tack in our kitchen near the cordless phone.

“Jenny. I want you to record a new message on the answering for Daddy because you have a much better voice. Here you go. I wrote it all out for you exactly as I want you to say it.”

I reluctantly accept the loose-leaf sheet he hands me. I shake as I read the words, “Hello, you’ve reached the home of the Gabazarians, God’s new chosen people. We’re not home at the moment. So please leave a message, and we will get back to you shortly.”

Please leave a message with the number of someone who will save me. This man can’t be your Father. He just can’t.

I don’t know how I utter these words with such clarity. But I do. Because I have to.

1995: Ants in the Pants

Each $100 car Dad procures presents us with a particular dilemma. Last year, Mrs. Smith’s car lost reverse. The flowered contact paper that Dad hastily applied to coverer over rusty body holes brushed the lawn each day as we drove over the grassy hump—the barrier between stone parking lot and road.

Now the retired taxi.

Rumors about Dad punching the crazy cabbie wane just as he discovers that the back brake lines leak.

“Goddamnit, Jenny. It’s always something for you and your Father.” He looks up at the pop-corned apartment ceiling as though he can see straight to heaven. Shaking his fists, he proclaims, “God, Lord Gabazar. I’m going to do your work. I’m gonna to get your message to the people, but could you cut my daughter and me a break for Christ-sake?” Jesus. Not Gabazar again. Can’t we just go back to being good Catholics? I swear I won’t complain about Sunday Mass at 7:15am anymore.

“Well, the hell with this, Jenny. You and Daddy will have to fix it ourselves. Like always.”

Let’s get this over with. Let’s pray the jack doesn’t fail this time. Pumping that up last year while he screamed, “get this motherfucking car off my stomach” scared you for life.

Dad grabs his toolkit and pries the triangular orange jack from the trunk. “Now, Jenny, you remember how to pump this up, right? In case this fucker falls on your poor Father, like last year?” Fighting back howling laughter, I nod with a slight snicker.

While Dad inches his way under the car, he yells, “Motherfucker! Who put this goddamn nut on here? A thousand-pound gorilla? Jenny! Hand me the half inch would ya?”

I scan the toolbox. Where is it? Nine-sixteenths…no…hurry up idiot, he’ll be growing impatient.

“Motherfucker!!!” I’m hurrying. Give me a second.

“I-m—uh—I’ve almost found it…”

Dad keeps yelling while scurrying out from under the car.

Jesus. He’s getting crazier by the day. Now he’s gonna kill you for not finding the socket in under thirty seconds.

I brace myself for a backhand across the bridge of my nose. Instead, Dad scampers around the parking lot while shaking his pant legs. “Dad?” I call out softly. Oh well, let it go. At least he’s not after you.

When he loops back toward me, I hold the half-inch cylinder up. Disinterested, He yells, “Didn’t you see what just happened to your Father?” I narrow my eyes in confusion. “Fire ants! Thousands of them all over this shitty fucking driveway ate me alive! I have to go in and change my pants. Watch the car and all this shit!” I look down to see the tiny red villains marching over the jagged stones. Jumping back in surprise, my cheeks begin to quiver. You’re going to lose it. He’ll kill you if you burst out laughing. Suck it in. It’s not that funny. They ate him alive. Yes, it’s fucking hilarious.

After Dad disappears for a moment I squat behind the mailbox and double over. He returns just as I compose myself, again. “Sorry, Dad.”

“Yeah, yeah, you probably loved seeing your old man getting eaten alive. After I move this car, just hand me the tools I need.”

I shoot him my aye-aye-captain look while he jams a screw in the left back brake line—followed by the right one. “Well that oughtta hold us. Now we just have to find some sucker to let us pass inspection. And why should anyone care. You don’t really need back brakes, anyways!”

1997: Chinese Push-ups

Dad hangs around at my cross-country practice often enough that Coach offered him the assistant’s position. Mostly it provides a legal reason for Dad to ride on the team bus.

Today, we compete against Johnstown. While the team waits for the bus on the side lawn, Dad approaches the guys in their most Gumby-like states.

Please let him become a mute like Steve Martin at the end of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I chuckle at the thought, but I know humiliation looms.

“Hey boys, I calculated how everyone of you could beat the opposing team by a minute and a half.”

My teammates barely raise their heads. I know what they must be thinking. Old man, go away. And stop standing over me while my groin is exposed, too.

 “Hey, Mark, I know you want to hear Mr. K’s ideas about how you can beat your old time.”

Mark, a former, well actually, current crush, responds politely. “Sure, Mr. K. But, I don’t think I stand a chance against Jim, the best runner at Johnstown.”

“Don’t say that until you hear my genius idea. I actually did the math on this.” Dad pulls out a piece of folded paper from his back pocket. Could my luck be any worse? Nine other girls on this team all have normal families. No wonder cute guys never want to date me.

 “Look here. I calculated all this with a complicated mathematical formula. If each one of you boys lengthens your stride by a tenth of an inch each time, then you’ll win the race easily.” I catch Mark staring back, dumbfounded. Brilliant idea, Dad. I can’t believe our real coach with the Harvard degree missed that one! And who made you an expert mathematician all of a sudden? Just last week, you told me that one plus one doesn’t really equal two. So I had to derive the proof for you.

Zero interest in Dad’s scheme causes him to press the boys even harder.

“Alright, I bet none of you boys can do a Chinese push-up like Mr. K.”

Kevin’s ears perk up. “What is a Chinese push-up?”

Dad grins mischievously because he knows he has them hook line and sinker. “Oh you guys never heard of those?” Yeah because you made them up! “Well Mr. K wasn’t always a fat old man, you know.” Kevin smirks.

“I’m serious. Mr. K won a contest for doing the most Chinese push-ups back when I was in the Marines. And I’ll bet not one of you can do them.”

Mark speaks up. “Show us one Mr. K.” Before Mark can finish, Dad’s already belly down on the grass explaining the rules. “Okay, now you can’t cheat! You have to put your arms and hands stretched out completely in front of you like this. And then push up.”

With the attention of the entire team, Dad pretends to strain a little before pushing his way off the ground.

Kevin and Mark want to prove themselves too. Give it up, boys.

You’re going to die single. Probably squeezing his feet until the last breath.

 Within a minute, they’ve all failed, and probably pulled a muscle, thereby diminishing their chances of winning the actual race. Mentally, I envision Dad marking the checkbox, Winning, suckers!

 Once the drama dies down, Coach makes a few announcements. While we board the bus, I hear Kevin whisper to Mark, “Dude, he got off the ground because he used his fat stomach. No one could do one of those stupid Chinese push-ups.”

Fuck. A new personal low.