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.

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.

1994: An Unwanted Visitor

When we walk in the front door, I immediately sling my loaded backpack onto the bench. I can feel where the strap dug into my shoulder. That’s going to leave a red mark. Damn small shoulders. Damn math book.

 I have plans tonight; it’s my first school-night off in two weeks.

Time to catch up on spelling, math, and science. Why is Course I so hard? You’ve always been great at math. What’s happening? Maybe you’re working too much. You don’t even have weekends off. Practically living with Ann, Bob and their spoiled kid. Your kids will never be spoiled. I said it’s time to brush your teeth! Lucky you have a toothbrush, and teeth.

 “Hey Dad, I have a lot of homework due this week. I think I should go work in my room for a little while.” So you don’t interrupt me every three minutes to commentate on the news.

“Okay, Jenny. But first come here. Look at that car parked in the driveway.” He points through a single blind slat that he’s lifted half way.

“That’s Kevin’s spot. No one parks there. Who the hell is that?” Who gives a shit? Can I go catch up on two weeks of math that I’m technically failing?

 He must detect the sarcasm in my shrug. “Hey, it’s your Father’s job as manager of this place to keep an eye on everything. And if they don’t move, I’m going to have to go out there.” I roll my eyes out of habit.

Before Dad can make good on his promise, a professionally dressed woman carrying a briefcase exits the dark blue Toyota Camry. We don’t see people like that in these parts. I hope she’s not lost.

 The mystery woman makes a beeline for our door. As she approaches, I notice the faint pinstripe in her grey slacks and the shimmer of her fuchsia-colored blouse. She can’t be a Jehovah’s Witness. It’s not Sunday.

 Dad’s already opened the door before she knocks. Cautious, he says, “I’m Tom, the manager here. Can I help you?”

She doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, I’m Rachel Porter from Child Protective Services. Do you have a daughter named Jenny?”

“Yes, I do. I’ve raised my daughter since she was four days old because her mother didn’t want her. What’s the problem here?”

Stop trying to sound tough, asshole.

 Rachel doesn’t flinch. “Well, I am here today because our office received a phone call regarding your daughter.” Her words cause goose bumps to form on my arms. Holy shit. Someone knows I’m alive and that he’s crazy? Who is it?

 Furious, Dad shoots back. “There must be some mistake. As I’ve said, I’ve raised my daughter since birth. If there’s any question, you can talk to her teachers at school. I’d also like to know who made this phone call. The only reason I’m asking is because I have a lot of jealous and crazy family members who would do something like this to punish me, believe it or not.”

Rachel doesn’t blink. “I am sorry, but all calls to the agency are anonymous, sir. While, I’m here, though, would you mind if I had a conversation with Jenny?”

“No. I don’t mind. Come on in. Can I get you anything to drink?”

 Again, Rachel resists Dad’s best attempt. “Actually, I’d like to take Jenny for a walk around the block if you don’t mind.” Holy shit. Showdown.

 Now Dad hesitates. “Uh, sure I guess that’s ok.” He turns to me, “That okay with you Jenny?”

I nod.

 “Okay, when can I expect her back, Ms. Porter?”

“Oh about 20 minutes or so.” Okay so this is happening? Please be smart and take me away. Far away. Change my name. Put me under a protective order.

 As we exit the apartment without Dad, I feel as though I’ve stepped into an unknown dimension. Next you’ll see the sandworms from Beetlejuice.

 Rachel waits until we’re half way through the driveway to ask me where I go to school and if I like it there. So far her questions are easy. Stay calm.

 She continues to probe in a friendly way, “So your Dad raised you?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have a good relationship with your dad? Do you have visitation with your mother?”

 The lies come out of my mouth with ease. He trained you so well. “Yes, I’ve always been with my Dad. My mom gave me up after I was born. I’ve only see her sometimes when she’s around. She moved to California when I was little.”

As we turn the corner onto Haskell…a safe distance…

 Yeah right there’s no safe distance. This whole investigation is a fraud. Is this how they protect children? Does it work? Do they understand that he’s the Terminator. He’ll kill us all. He’ll never stop until we’re all dead, unless I lie. This might be your only shot, you idiot, but you can’t take it. Now take a deep breath and keep lying to this nice naïve lady.

 Near the last house on the street, Rachel asks me the big question, “Has your Dad ever touched you in any inappropriate way?” You mean incest? No he hasn’t. Never. But he’s threatened my life, hit me, and called me a cunt and a whore on weekly basis. Does any of that matter?

 I smile a little as my eyes graze the uneven sidewalk. “No my Dad has never done anything like that.”

“Are you sure, honey? Nothing at all that you want to tell me?”

Give it a rest already. You’ve got him all wrong. Thank God I know enough to lie or we would both be dead.

 “No. I mean my Dad and I are really close. I used to sit on his lap sometimes if he would read me a story. But nothing bad ever happened.”

After I’ve answered her probes, we turn the corner again toward the apartment.

“Well, that’s good. You seem like a very nice young lady, and I’m glad that you have your Dad.”

“Thank you.” And you did it. Blew your big chance. Just hope he spares you after Ms. Porter leaves.

 Before we knock, Dad’s already flung the door open. He’s smiling. He knows you wouldn’t have the guts.

 For the first time, Rachel smiles too. She’s concluded that I’m safe and well-adjusted. Next case.

 Dad grills me on the questions she asked. I tell him the truth.

When I finally open my math book, I hear him yelling on the phone, threatening my mother, then my aunt. “You cocksucking whores better not have done this to me. Those bastards thought I touched Jenny. Mark my words. I’ll kill whoever did this.”

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.”

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!

1991: Lilacs and Fire Hydrants

Dad taught me the fire hydrant game when I was six. Red ones count for double points today.

Summer foliage hides some of them, even though I already know where each one pokes out. Of course, it’s considered cheating if you call out ahead of time.

Another block, and you can call the splotchy yellow one on the corner of Bay Street and…

Before I am able to point exaggeratedly, Dad pulls off the side of the road in a hurry.

I look at him quizzically as my arm dangles toward an abandoned brick building instead of my secret fire hydrant.

Dad laughs, “Oh you thought you were gonna beat Daddy, huh? Well, don’t worry my child. You’ll have your chance. But first, your Father wants to get some of these beautiful lilacs. If I’m quick, no one will notice.”

Dad sneaks behind the car as traffic whizzes by. I watch as he slices his boot knife through each branch. I can smell the lilac aroma before he lumbers back in the driver’s seat.

Dad hands the lilacs over to me, “Here. Hold these we get home to put them in water. God! What a beautiful deep purple this year. Your Father’s favorite flower, you know.”

I know, Dad. You stopped for them last year too. But did we really have to interrupt our favorite—our only—game we play together?

 Despite my annoyance, I stick my nose down and take a deep breath. I admire each clover-shaped petal. Purple is my new favorite color.

 But then I see them. No! I’m dead!! It like that movie, Invasion of the…

I must be screaming, though I don’t realize it, because Dad’s voice exceeds my own, “Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Stop the screaming. What is it?”

I hold up my arms to reveal thousands of ants covering me.

“Oh, Jesus! It’s just a couple of little sugar ants. Stop being a pussy, would ya?” Dad tries to brush them off, but there are too many.

Dad pulls to the side of the road just long enough to take the bouquet from my hands and toss them into the road.

“Fucking, shit. I hope you’re happy, Jenny. They’re gone.” Fine. It wasn’t my idea to get them. Maybe you should have checked for bugs first!

 We ride back to the apartment in silence. Even though the fire hydrant game is over, I continue to count them all as we pass by.