1988: Wads of Dough

“Jenny, you know that money that Daddy’s been having you hide from me since last year?

My eyes grow wide. “Well I need it now. You must have a couple hundred saved up!”

Excited, I reply “Yes Daddy! It’s all in my closet on the shelf.”

Impatiently, I wait for Dad to retrieve the money but he returns empty handed.

“Jenny, I thought you said you hid the money on your top shelf.”

“I did, Daddy. I put it all in tissues.” Dad looks bewildered.

“I wrapped the money in tiny tissue envelopes so you wouldn’t find it. Just like you wanted me to.”

“Wait a minute! Jenny, you put the money in tissues? How? You’re scaring Poppa.”

“Well each time you gave me five or ten dollars I wrapped each one in a tissue.”

Dad puts his hands up to his face and shakes his head. “Motherfucker!”

Why is Daddy mad? Is he mad at me?

 Shaking his head in disgust, Dad boils over, “Jenny, I threw the fucking money in the garbage! All of it! Why the fuck would you put real money in tissues? You know Daddy doesn’t trust the goddamn banks. That’s why I gave it to you.”

I gaze down, blankly. Why did he throw the money away? Isn’t this what I was supposed to do? Wasn’t he saving it?

 Blaring, he explains, “Jesus Christ! I was cleaning last month and I found all those tissues in your closet. I thought you were nuts saving used tissues. So I threw them all in the trash. My fucking luck!”

My heart sinks. Oh no!

 I run to the closet. Way in the back, I find two tissues that Dad has overlooked.

“See Dad, just like this.” I unwrap two five-dollar bills, and hand them to him.

“Yes those were it! Fucking shit. Not even enough to bet the late double. But what can Daddy do except laugh, right? I guess we’re going to starve again this month, baby girl.”


1993: Bad Checks

 “Come on Jenny, let’s go see if there’s anything good in the garbage this week.” Dad finds an old Hoover. There’s no way he’s taking a used vacuum. Is he?

 Dad flips the vacuum over on the pavement near the dumpster. “Look at this, Jenny. It’s just as Daddy suspected. Some asshole never cleaned all the hair out of the brush.” I feel my stomach turning as he shows me the wiry wound strands covered with goop.

Dad pulls out his trusty boot knife and begins to slice through the matted mane. Between cuts he pulls with all his might. I can tell he feels prouder every time a new chunk gives way.

While he concentrates intently on rescuing our new vacuum cleaner, I see a police officer walking toward us.

Dad, crouched over the broken Hoover, doesn’t realize the officer is now standing over him, “Mr. K?”

Dad, a bit startled, replies, “Yes. I’m Tom. I’m the manager of this complex. How can I help you officer?”

“Actually, I’m here to speak to you sir. We’ve been looking for you for a long time. It seems you wrote some bad checks several years ago.”

Dad doesn’t miss a beat. “There must be some mistake.”

But the officer persists. “I’m afraid not, sir. In fact, I’m going to need you to come with me down to the station.”

“Officer, what about my daughter? I’ve raised her since she was four days old. She has no mother and we have no family.”

“Well, I guess she will have to come down to the station with us, for now.”

For now? I feel myself quiver all over. Tiny goose bumps appear on my legs and arms. Are they arresting me too? Are they going to take me away? Where would I go?

 Reluctantly, Dad takes my hand and squeezes it. It feels like we will never arrive at the police station, but we’ll be stuck in this police car purgatory for the rest of our lives.

When we arrive, the officer seats us in his office. My stomach begins to grumble while turning over. I realize that I haven’t eaten all day.

Officer Jones pulls out a book of checks and shows them to my father. “Tom, do you recognize your signature on these checks?”

Dad points to two authorizations and apologizes, “I’m sorry officer. I never knew these checks were bad. I think what happened here is that I closed out my account at First National Bank and these companies never informed me that I owed them anything.”

I lean forward slightly. I recognize Dad’s handwriting. One is made out to Sears for $37.12.

But then Dad points to another two checks, and says, “Officer these are not mine. This must be my crooked nephew. I never had an account like that. Only the one at First National. You can check that information out.”

Officer Jones doesn’t respond but he informs us that he will be back in a few minutes.

As we wait, Dad appears to be calm, but I see beads of sweat forming on his face. Why is it taking so long? They’re going to arrest him. Put him in prison. I’ll be sent off to a foster home and they’ll hurt me like they hurt my mom.

 When the officer returns, he informs my father, “Listen, Mr. K., this is a very serious offense. And since these bad checks have been out for years, we could arrest you for this. But I talked to Sears and the other company on your behalf. They said that when you pay them the money you owe, they would drop the charges. We also verified that the other bank account does not belong to you.”

Dad is ecstatic. “Yes of course. Thank you officer Jones. I always pay my bills. I don’t want to owe anyone anything. And if you need any help contacting my cheating nephew, I’d be happy to supply you with his contact information.”

I breathe for the first time in 2 hours. When officer Jones brings us back to the complex, I’ve never been so happy to see the fly-infested dumpster. God, I’ll never complain again. About anything.

The used Hoover is right where dad left it. Relieved of his newfound freedom, he carries the vacuum cleaner to our apartment.

1994: Magically Appearing Cars


Dad’s on a mission today. “Jenny, come on, I want you to get dressed nice like you’re going to church. Daddy’s got an idea to get us a car.”

We have a car now, but it needs a new engine mount and it has no reverse. So Daddy says, “it’s cheaper to just get a ‘new’ one.”

“There’s an old woman that lives in that little house around the corner from us. I’m pretty sure her husband kicked the bucket because the car hasn’t moved all winter. She probably can’t drive anymore. So let’s see if she wants to sell her car to someone in need. Don’t forget what Daddy always taught you. Our business is our business.”

No your business is your business. I don’t want any part of it. Such a good Samaritan! Always there at precisely the right moment to help an old lady in need. God this is how we got our last four cars. Why can’t we just go to the dealership like a normal family. Oh yeah, we tried that once. Only because my Mother made you do it! And they repossessed the car four months after she moved out—“couldn’t afford it without your mother’s help”—Bullshit! Always someone to blame! Always someone to manipulate!

 We arrive at the door. I have never met the woman who lives here. He knocks. It takes a few minutes for her to answer. She looks alarmed, but then she catches my eye. She asks, “Can I help you?” behind her screen door.

“Hi my name is Tom. I’m your neighbor…live right across the street from you. This is my daughter Jenny. I work for the church and help a lot of the needy people in our area. I would like to talk to you about your car.”

She half smiles in a perplexed way, but invites us to come in.

He makes small talk with her and tells her more about his “credentials.”

The he says, “Well, Mrs. Smith, I came here today because I noticed you haven’t moved your car all winter.”

Mrs. Smith hesitantly replies, “Ye-e-s, well, I have a bad hip and I can’t drive anymore. My husband passed away last year. So my son is going to come and take the car out of my driveway anytime now.”

This is ridiculous. I can’t even believe he figured this out. I can’t believe I am just standing here and listening to this. I am willing myself to magically disappear, but they continue to talk despite me.

My father explains to the elderly woman, “Well, as I was telling you, my daughter Jenny and I work with the needy. And as it happens, there is a woman in the complex where I live. She’s a single mother. Husband left her alone with a newborn. He was abusive. Bad situation. Anyway, she’s in dire straits and really needs a car. I am hoping you’ll consider selling yours to help that poor woman out.”

No! That did not just happen. I guess that’s why you told me about “our business”—the thing you say when you want to tell a lie and have me keep my mouth shut. I knew you were going to come over here and manipulate her, but I figured you would tell her that we needed the car. And not on the first visit! At least that’s how you’ve done it the past. Not taking any chances this time apparently. Son-of-a-bitch!

Mrs. Smith remains uncertain, but says, “W-e-l-l, okay. But I should call my son about that—–

He interrupts her, “Oh of course, of course, it’s just that she needs something as quickly as possible. She just got a job. And she can’t manage the baby and the job with no car. That poor woman. I was hoping to be able to help her out here.”

Not going so well is it? There’s always a pesky son or friend. Don’t do it Mrs. Smith! Don’t fall for it. Or just hurry up and give him the car. Another car I will be teased about. Oh well, at least it’s not an old cab this time.

 Mrs. Smith wants to return to her afternoon tea. “Uh, how much would I sell it to her for? I’m not even sure if the car is running. My husband always took care of that.”

Dad assures her, “Don’t even worry about that. I know a great mechanic that will do the work for very little. The best thing is to sign the car over to me today for $100—that way motor vehicle doesn’t tax it as a gift—and I then I will repair the car and have it to her in no time. God bless you. You are a good woman to help out in this way. I can be back in an hour with the paperwork from the DMV”

She looks stunned. I’m stunned. This story doesn’t even add up. Why would she sign the car over to him? Why wouldn’t she get to meet the woman? What if she sees us driving the car later… because she can see our driveway from her living room window!

 But despite Mrs. Smith’s, and my, confusion, Dad makes good on his promise to get us a new used-car that day.

The old cement-grey Plymouth starts right up. As usual, I brace myself for the dust cloud that will inevitably blow out of the vents. After it idles for a minute, Dad wastes no time moving the car from its former driveway into our gravelly parking space at the complex.

1993: Rabbit Ears

It’s October. My favorite time of year to rustle through the leaves as I walk.

Dad turns on the news before school as usual. He watches Katie Couric discuss the day on a grainy screen. The rabbit ears fail Dad today because I see him adjust them several times. A quarter-turn clockwise. An inch to the left. How does it help to fiddle with them constantly?

 We had cable last year, but Dad didn’t pay the bill for a few months so they shut us off. “It’s better this way, Jenny. We don’t need to be watching so much television anyways. Your Father never really liked T.V. I miss the days of radio—the Lone Ranger and The Shadow!”

Then why are you always the one watching it and who cares about the stupid Lone Ranger! We’re the only family this century that has rabbit ears!

 As I choke down my scrambled egg and orange juice, ugh too much pulp, why does Dad buy this kind, I realize that it’s going to be a worse than usual day.

Another child kidnapping case! There was already one over the summer and then one from a couple years ago that Dad still obsesses over. Now I’ll never have any freedom!

 Right on cue, Dad flips out, “Goddamn motherfuckers! Another baby kidnapped. Do you see this bullshit, Jenny?”

I nod in his direction.

“You see now why Daddy can’t let you just go out and ride your bike alone. It’s a different world than it was twenty years ago. Plus your Father is a single parent. A single Father…no less! I have to be even more careful. If anything happens to you, they’ll blame me.”

He continues, “I’d like to catch every one of these sons a bitches, and torture them slowly for hurting these innocent babies. They taught us how to torture people in the military, you know. Burn their skin slowly with hot oil, rip off every finger nail, gouge out their eyes…”

He goes on for a while. My stomach turns. I hope he doesn’t see me throw the last bit of egg in the garbage.

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.