1997: Cold Hard Winter

Through tears against the bitter cold, Burger King’s logo flickers in the pitch dark. Thank you, God for this beacon. Never thought we’d reach the end of this frigid desert.

 Inside, I unzip my jacket immediately as the heat vents blast against my face. Can’t breathe! Dad turns and asks, “What do you want tonight?” My usual. “Breaded chicken sandwich. And Dad, can I get fries too?”

“Of course.”

Dad orders his traditional bacon cheeseburger with a large Coke.

Even though the place is empty, we plod toward the tables in the back. Room to spread out. Dad hoists my loaded backpack off his shoulder while I unsling my ski bag and stuffed Adidas gym tote.

I rub my shoulder where the straps dug in. Jesus. This has to end.

 My stomach growls as I gaze at the night sky through the arched glasshouse style windows. I unwrap the silvery paper from my sandwich as soon as the tray comes. Fuck yes! Food never tasted so good.

I don’t look up until Dad startles me. “Jesus, mother-fucking Christ! Jenny! You ate that whole sandwich in under a minute!” Hungry!

 He continues, “You must be starved. And why not? You skied in the freezing cold for two hours. And then we walked here three miles. Your fucking mother really pisses me off…” Don’t blame her. You have to start taking responsibility for your dragon-plan bullshit sometime.

“…You want Daddy to order you another one? I’ve still got five dollars in my wallet.”

I ponder his offer seriously. Get it. You need it to live. Yeah, but that’s the last five dollars for the week. And what about tomorrow night?

 “That’s okay, Dad. I’ll be okay. Thank you.”

I resume rapidly firing fries into my mouth. You’ve been hungry many times, but this must be the worst ever.

The next morning, Dad wakes me at 6:15 sharp. Brushing my teeth makes me gag. Too early. What is wrong with you?

Today is worse. Dad’s voice pierces through the bathroom door. “Goddammit, Debbie. She’s your daughter. If you’re going to say no to giving your own daughter a ride to school so she doesn’t have to walk over three miles to school with three giant packs, then just say, ‘NO!’ Don’t give me a thousand fucking excuses of why you can’t do it. You’ve never done shit for our daughter, anyways.”

I cringe looking at the brass doorknob. I ponder turning the lock and never coming out. Yeah, sure! That’ll last about five minutes. Remember what happened to her when she locked herself in the bedroom. He’ll come with the meat cleaver.

Before my foot grazes the last stair, Dad begins rehearsing his fight with Mom. “Can you believe your fucking mother, Jenny? She’s worried about having to get your brother ready and in the car. Something about getting his fucking shoes and coat on. That’s why she can’t give you a ride to school. I told the bitch to stop making excuses!”

I know. I already heard you the first time. My stomach turns over. I’m thankful Dad’s too angry to offer me any breakfast today.

“Oh, and I told your fucking mother that our neighbors and friends treat us better. Mary has let us borrow her car for weeks. But I know she can’t do that every day.” No she can’t. So how about you get a job and buy a car…like a real Father who wanted another daughter.

 I heave both packs on my sore shoulder and glance back at Dad. Time to go! Let’s go get this over with. And thank God, it’s Thursday already.

“No, Jenny. We’re not walking today.” My eyes widen. What are we doing flying on Zeus’s back?

“While you were in the shower, Daddy called Mrs. Cranshaw.” Judy’s mom? “…You know, your good friend Judy’s mom? Well, she’s going to drive three miles out of their way to pick you up today. Now those are good people, Jenny! That’s how your Father is raising you to be one day, too.”

Mrs. Cranshaw’s headlights pierce the window blinds. My eyes well up. Why the hell are you crying? Why is it so hard when people are kind?

Judy smiles up at me as I climb into the back seat of her forest green Ford. My voice shakes, “Thank you, Mrs. Cranshaw. This is so kind of you.”

“Think nothing of it, Jenny. We were happy to do it.” Shit. More tears. You’ll never know how thankful I really am. And you’ll probably never know what a bastard he really is, either.

Judy and I giggle in the back—plotting our next moves to survive high school—for the remaining ten-minute ride.

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1989: The Return

Mom’s navy blue pump catches on the doorjamb as enters our hotel room. Once inside, she peeks from left to right. Kitchenette, television, bathroom, tweed couch, and bedroom. What if she’s sad because we live in a stupid hotel instead of a real house like the McCarthy’s or the Thompson’s? What if she leaves again like last time?

Instead Mom arranges her luggage on the bed and faces Dad with a beaming smile. He returns the smile. “Deborah, I’m so happy you’re home from California. This is going to be the best thing for our daughter, you know. She needs a woman. She needs a mother.”

Pretending not to hear him, Mom squeals, “Tommy, come here! I want to show you some of the gifts I brought back for you. They’re all from the Casual Male shop in Cali where I worked as assistant manager. I’m going to miss it out there, but I got a fabulous deal on all these clothes for you.”

Dad soaks up the attention as Mom pulls out new silk shirts for him. “If we’re going to be together, Thomas, I want you to look good. More like when I met you.”

“Oh yeah, I used to dress good back then.” Dad turns toward me. “Your mother always liked my khaki suits, Jenny. Of course those were the days when you were just a figment of our imagination.”

Dad winks at Mom. She grins back and rolls her eyes. “Oh, Thomas! You were a bad boy.” Why do they get along now? They fought so much when Daddy would call her on the payphone every week last year.

Mom holds shirts and pants up against Dad’s frame while he talks with his hands. This is kind of boring.

I zone off toward the large mirror that hangs opposite my bed. Where you stuffed your nightgown last week after watching the Huxtables. Dad almost caught you admiring your chest when he woke up after his four-hour nap. I shudder at the memory while Mom feels around the bottom of her suitcase and pulls out two silk ties. “Tommy, I know you don’t like ties, but these were each a hundred and fifty dollars.”

Dad grabs one tie from Mom’s hand. He inspects it carefully. “You know me so well, Deborah. I don’t usually wear ties, but I love this one. The colors are perfect. That, and the fact that you bought it for me.” When he lays it on the bed, I see the chocolate brown and blue swirly design.

He’s so happy. Wonder what Mom brought back for you?

Patiently, I await Mom’s gifts. I’m here, Mom. I missed you.

“Tommy. Hold up! I’m not done, yet.” Dad turns back toward me. He looks sorry somehow.

Mom continues, “Here’s the best one!” She pulls out a buttery-yellow leather backpack. It’s perfect. I love purses and bags!

My eyes grow wide. Dad eyes grow wide. “Yes it’s real leather, Tommy. Go ahead. Feel it.” Wait? It’s for him?

“Jesus. Deborah. You must have paid four hundred for this.” Mom doesn’t seem to care about money today. “It was a lot, but I wanted you to have it.” She unsnaps the two outer pockets, but the moment has passed.

I hang my head. She forgot about you. But that’s okay. She’s back. Hope they won’t act like this all the time.

“Jenny Penny! Mom brought a little something back for you too.” I knew it. She didn’t forget you! Maybe your bag is pink or purple?

She pulls out a small stuffed bear with a red ribbon tied around his neck. I don’t immediately walk toward her. So she brings the fuzzy animal to me.

I look up at her. Not exactly what you wished for. “Thank you, Mom.”

“Of course, honey. Mom wouldn’t forget about you.” Her copper ringlets graze my cheek as she leans forward to kiss my forehead.

Dad motions to her. “Hey Deb, we better hang these shirts and things up. I don’t want any of this stuff you paid a fortune for getting wrinkled to shit.”

“Good point, Tommy.” Mom turns on her heel and heads back toward Dad’s pile of gifts.

While she attends to the chore, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear. “Don’t worry. That backpack will be yours one day, Jenny.”

I glance toward one buttery yellow strap that hangs off the edge of the bed. You can wait.

1997: Bye, Bye, Engine!

After the couple next to me finishes making out, I quickly plug in my locker combination.

Okay. You have to read for history in homeroom today. Yeah, fuck that! Skim it. Yes, you’re a horrible person, but who wanted to carry that shit home. Oh and study for bio test in lunch. You’ll still get an A.

My art teacher, Mr. G approaches my locker. He wears his usual uniform: a smug grin, a Florida tan, and crisp white shirt with “TFG” embroidered on the collar. Some days he drives a Mercedes, other days he drives a small burgundy pickup truck.

Confidently, he informs me, “Jenny, I think it’s time for your Father to get a new car!”

I swivel around and look up at him quizzically. I mean Dad needed a new car since 1989, so why pick today to tell me that he drives a piece of shit.

Aware of my confusion, he continues, “Jenny, do you realize what’s happened outside?” He says this as he points to the double doors at the end of the hall.

I shrug, “ummm, no?”

His baritone voice registers louder than usual, “I think your Father’s engine just fell out of his car! Right in the school parking lot!”

Jesus. Keep your voice down G! Why don’t we just broadcast it over the loudspeaker?

I nervously laugh it off, and shake my head while fighting back tears.

You should go out there and see if he’s okay. Screw it. What can you do? You’re not an engine repairperson.

I quickly drop into homeroom and hunker down over my notebook pretending to study for my biology quiz.

When the 2:17 school bell rings, I approach the double doors reluctantly. Is he going to be out there? Was he there all day? Could you really get any less popular?

But as the afternoon sunlight streams across my face, I blink twice at Dad standing next to a hot red car. That car is beautiful!

Son of a—he bought a new car? Wait-a-minute. Shit, that’s Mary’s car.

Dad grins like a Cheshire cat, “Hey, Mary let me borrow her car to pick you up. Didn’t your art teacher tell you what happened to Poppa this morning in the parking lot?”

I gaze toward the pavement. Proof of your guilt.

“Goddamn engine mounts gave way. Right after I let you out.”

How was I spared that embarrassment? Well, almost…

“Daddy thought to himself: how am I going to pick Jenny up? So I just went to Mary and said give me your keys. And she did. Just like that.”

I don’t dare ask, “What are we going to do now?”

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.

1990: Not Workin’ for a Livin’

“Jenny, I’m not going to work anymore. Daddy is applying for social security disability. If I win the case, I will be the first man ever to receive social security for having Neurofibromatosis. I just want you to know that your father is a fighter and a champion.”

We drive to the Social Security office in my aunt’s old Chevy Malibu. The front half of the car is red and the back half is white because my aunt totaled the car last year. Dad insisted that she sell it to him for $100 and buy herself a new ride.

Once inside, we wait our turn to see Dad’s caseworker, Donna. Last week, after our appointment, Dad said, “I like that Donna. I wonder if she’s married. I think she has a band on her left finger, but I can tell that she likes me, anyways.”

Donna greets us and we walk back to her light grey upholstered cubicle. I notice that she has curly red hair and a lovely smile. She’s like normal people, like the teachers at school.

“Hello Mr. K. Hi Jenny. It’s nice to see you both. Let me grab your file. I just have a few questions for you this week.”

After the appointment, Dad and Donna converse. Dad parades his signature sob story, “My wife, Deborah left when Jenny was 4 days old. She never gave me a penny. I’ve raised Jenny all by myself. Just her and Pop. No other family.”

He glances in my direction to make sure I look properly forlorn while Donna stares at me with a familiar I’m so sorry and what a shame that you don’t have a mom, little girl look.

Donna offers, “Well, my husband and I have a 4 year old little girl, Libby. We live in Saratoga in a house with plenty of spare rooms. I know this is forward, but if you ever want Jenny to spend the weekend at our place, we would be delighted to have her.”

Well that is never going to happen. Dad will never let you out of his sight. I mean we don’t even know this woman or her husband.

 “Sure. I don’t let Jenny stay with just anyone, but I can tell that you are a wonderful woman.” What did he just say? What kinds of drugs did Dr. Merryhue give him this time?

“Okay, great! Hey, we are putting up our Christmas tree next weekend. If you want to drop her off, I will write our home address on the back of my business card.”

My eyes remain wide as we exit the social security building.

“Boy that Donna is a good looking woman, huh? She’s your Father’s type. That’s for sure. Too bad she’s married. Of course she doesn’t know about your Father’s charms yet, either.”

Please Donna, run!

1989: Who Can You Trust?

 

Daddy sits on the toilet seat to discuss whatever’s on his mind while I take my nightly bath.

“Jenny, my father always told me of all the people to stay away from, you stay away from the fucking Irish. He used to tell me that at least the goddamn blacks were clean and had manners. But you could never trust an ‘Irishman.’ They’re belligerent, no-good, common drunkards.

Don’t say that about my best friend. I think she’s perfect.

“Daddy would never lie to you; I want you to listen carefully to me now. You can’t trust anyone– not even your own children and your husband, someday.”

No. He is wrong. You can trust people. You have to tell him.

“Daa—d, my best friend is Irish.”

“Bullshit. The Irish are not your friends. I just told you that.”

Defensive, I explain, “Well, she wasn’t my friend at first. She didn’t like me when I started Kindergarten. But then I gave her a Valentine, and we became best friends.”

He shoots me a dismissive look. “Well, I can’t tell you what to do, but just don’t ever trust anyone. You hear me?” I hear you, but I don’t believe you. Why do you have to hate everyone?

After my bath, Dad notices my stubborn red knee bumps peeking out of my tatty white towel.

“Okay, those bumps aren’t going to clear up on their own. You can’t have that shit on your knees. Come here, Poppa knows what to do.”

I approach him hesitantly.

“Come on, I know you trust Daddy, right? This won’t hurt a bit. I’m just going to shave those bastards off with my razor.”

Razor? Cutting? NO! I don’t trust you! We just went over this. You said never trust anyone. I’ll start with you.

“Let me tell you a little secret, Jenny. One of the reasons that men have such smooth faces is because they shave. You won’t see that bumpy shit on a man’s face.”

I don’t breathe as Dad takes the blade to my knees. Blood pours from each bump down my leg. I try to run away from him before he can kill me. How much blood have I lost? Help me, someone!

But I can’t run farther than the hotel bedroom, two feet away. We each have a queen size bed in the same room. I jump on my bed. Don’t touch me.

“Oh come here, you little pansy. You’re a little crybaby just like your wimpy mother. I used to try to rip those little skin tags off her neck and she would have a fit too. One little cut and you would think that you’re being murdered for Christ sake!”

I grip my hands tightly, trying not to cry.

“Those better not be tears. Oh for Christ sake, you little crybaby. If you want to have nasty bumps on your knees, go ahead!”

Dad storms out into the living room and turns on the TV set. I crawl under the covers. I can feel the blood droplets drying onto the sheets beneath me. No dinner tonight. Make yourself a can of chicken noodle soup in the morning while he sleeps.

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.