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.

1992: Catechism Lesson

Dad screams at the television while I finish my homework lessons.

“Goddamn motherfuckers. Jenny, let Daddy teach you a lesson here. Because these assholes on the so-called-news, they lie. Columbus did not discover America. That’s why we don’t celebrate Columbus Day in this house. And I hate it when they teach you that bullshit in school. Daddy’s been complaining about this since the seventies when my other kids were in school. Why don’t they teach kids real history—about the Indians that were raped and murdered so we could have their land!”

I briefly nod. Then bury my head in my workbook. This assignment is due tomorrow, Dad. We don’t celebrate any of the holidays.

He approaches the table.

“What are you working on there? What the hell is so important? What could be more important than the lessons your father is trying to teach you?” Duh! My homework! My teachers are smarter than you and they can teach me everything I need to know.

“Oh. Religion. That’s another crock of bullshit, too!” But we’re Catholic, and you sent me to a Catholic school.

“I mean, just look at this horseshit—

Dad snatches the workbook from the table. I clench my hands. Give it back. It’s mine.

“A motherfucking white Jesus. You know Jesus was a Jew, right? Bastard had skin darker than your Father.”

But—it’s my workbook—and I like this Jesus. I look at him with pleading eyes, Please give it back.

“Listen. I know you think your Father is crazy.” Yes. Keep going…

“But someday you will thank me. Because you’ll know things that other people don’t know. It’s not that you’ll be better than other people. It’s just—the lessons I’m teaching you—other parents—they aren’t gonna teach their kids like Daddy’s teaching you.”

I sigh. But I don’t want to be taught other things. I want to live in a house like Mary and Lauren. I want to have Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Puffs for breakfast. And Fruit Roll-Ups for lunch. And I want a Mom, too.

“So these teachers in school—they think they’re teaching you about God. Well, God has no religion. Do you know what Daddy means by that?” I narrow my eyes, No?

“See people think that if you’re religious, then you’re going to heaven.” Yes. Like if we’re good Catholics and we go to church and take communion every week. Then we go to heaven.

“But your Father is here to tell you they’re all wrong. The priests. Your teachers. God doesn’t care about religion. He cares about whether or not you’re a good person.” Aren’t religious people, good people?

“Let Daddy give you an example so you can understand. We go to church every week. And you see some of those snobby fuckers that sit in the front. They won’t even talk to us.” That’s because we’re weird and they’re better than us.

 “Those fucks think they’re better than us. But how is that Christian? Jesus sat with the criminals.” But—

“It’s even worse than that. Some of those people in that church—they’re drunks—they beat their wives and kids.” You do that, so—

“But some people don’t go to church. Some of them don’t even believe in God. But they volunteer their time. Help people in need. They never hurt anybody on purpose. Now don’t you think God would rather have those decent people in heaven? Rather than those assholes who are too high on their horse to wave hello at church? It’s the same bullshit every Sunday.”

Well—I hadn’t really—thought about it.

“I can see you’re thinking about what you’re Father is telling you. That’s good. You’ll see that I’m right one day.”

Oh shit. He is right. He’s actually figured this out, and you can’t disagree with him even though you want to. You need to. But he’s right. But then why—if he knows this—would he act the way he does? Doesn’t he want to go to heaven too?

“Daddy knows what you’re thinking. That I’m a horrible Father. That might very well be true, but I was raised like shit. My parents—they never educated me. They never cared where I was—if I had a hot meal or went to school. So I’m trying to raise you to be better than your Father. I want you to be smart—but way beyond one and one equals two. Because one plus one doesn’t always equal two. But Daddy will save that for another time.”

Okay. Now he’s lost it again. But, you have to admit, there’s something good within him. If you can remember the good things, reject the bad things, then you might have a chance. A chance to be a good person one day.

The next day in religion class, Kevin raises his hand to talk about our lesson. He says, “People can’t go to heaven unless they believe in Jesus Christ, and accept that he died on the cross for our sins.”

Miss Volemer smiles and nods. No that’s wrong! It’s wrong and you can’t stand for it.

My right hand trembles as I stretch it high above my head. “Yes, Jenny?”

“Well, I don’t agree with Kevin. I mean—I don’t really agree with the book either.” I hear a few gasps from behind my seat in the second row. Miss Volemer stares at me intently as my face grows hotter. You have to say it, wimp. You have to say the truth.

“I—I don’t agree because if a person is a good person, and follows the teachings of Christ, then they should go to heaven even if they don’t believe. That’s what Christ would say. And that’s what I believe.”

My face glows red hot. I scan the classroom through my peripheral vision. Everyone sits silently. Including Miss Volemer. You’re going to get in big trouble. Whipped with the ruler like in the old days that Dad used to tell you about.

RINGGGGGG. Phew. Saved by the bell.

I quietly collect my things, and retreat to my locker. Head down. But feeling smart, just like Dad said I would.

1987: Retirement Home

The bus stop drops us off a short walk from the retirement home.

While Dad surveys the parking lot, December’s wind punctures through my pink ballerina flats. I wriggle my Popsicle toes, hoping they won’t snap off. Ouch. Why can’t we just go inside? I turn toward the door and consider making a run for it, but I know Dad will backhand me.

He eyes my shivering legs. “Jenny. Poppa knows it’s cold out here. But I wanted to take a look around this parking lot. These old ladies have all these beautiful cars.” He stops to peer in the driver’s side window of a light blue sedan. Buick. “And your Father bets ninety percent of these old hags don’t drive them anymore. Why couldn’t I be lucky enough to find me a rich old wife?”

I picture my new mother—a hunched woman with curly silvery hair. I shake my head left to right—right to left. I already have a mom. Except that she lives really far away. And Dad says that she might try to kidnap me someday.

The elevator ride up to the fifth floor partially thaws my limbs. In the long hallway, I notice a woman wheeling a metal cart filled with round silver discs. Flying saucers? Why do old people need those?

After the woman passes, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear, “Meals on Wheels. That’s a good service because a lot of these people can’t cook for themselves, but your Father is sure the food is horrible.” Dad knows because he’s a chef.

Dad uses his secret knock—Dun da dun dun…Dun dun—when we reach 5B.

“Rose. Hello! Just Tom and my daughter, Jenny, again. Madeline’s friends.”

Rose ushers us in. I immediately notice the same musty odor from our first visit. Dad called it, old people smell. Said he’d never live in a place like this. He’d go off into the woods like a real man when it was time for him to go.

As I return from my blank stare, Dad stands in Rose’s kitchen, feverishly chopping ingredients. He calls over his shoulder, “Jenny, why don’t you ask Rose what you can do to help?”

She instructs me to set the table pointing to the silverware drawer with her bony finger. I arrange the forks, knives and spoons on three napkins and set the scalloped plates in the center. The small painted flowers run alongside the golden rim. I trace the pattern over and over in my mind.

Dad requests, “Rose, I’m wondering if you have anything that might help me chop these nuts faster?” She looks at him quizzically. He offers, “If you don’t mind, I could just take a look through your cupboards and see what you might have.”

She nods, “That will be okay, Tom.”

Dad opens all the cabinets on top first. Nothing. He kneels, leaning forward, to reach all the way back into the lower corner cupboard. His eyes grow wide like a leprechaun who struck a pot of gold.

“Rose, this is a first class food processor. Did you know that you had this back in this cupboard?”

I watch as Dad pulls out all the bits. He takes a careful look at the shiny blades and grins.

She narrows her eyes slightly to focus on the bulky contraption. “Yes, Tom. You may use that. I’m afraid of it, actually. My son and daughter-in-law bought that for me one Christmas, but it’s too powerful.”

Dad grins again. “Oh, that’s really too bad, Rose. I mean this is a professional machine. I bet they paid a couple hundred for it. If you’d like, I can show you how to use it.”

Rose takes three steps back from the counter. “No thank you. It’s not something I really need. I don’t know why they bought that for me, come to think of it.”

She pauses, watching while Dad pushes stalks of celery through the plastic chimney. “You know what, Tom… you should take that food processor as a gift from me.”

He looks up at Rose through the top of his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t take this from you.”

“No. Go ahead. Really. It’s almost Christmas, and besides, I really appreciate you coming over here to help me out. I’m glad Madeline introduced us. Oh, and why don’t you take that electric juicer I saw you use last week, too?”

Dad goes silent for a moment. We wait for his utterance.

“Thank you, Rose. God bless you! I’ll take great care of them both. They won’t go to waste.”

Is he supposed to take gifts? Godmother Madeline told Dad last week you’re not supposed to get thanks for community service…

I stand at the sink, drying what he washes with a strawberry embossed hand towel when I hear Rose shriek from behind.

“No! No! No! This is not how you set a table. The spoons go on the outside like this! Who taught this child how to set a table?”

Dad and I spin around to a tight-lipped Rose, stooped over each place setting, rearranging silverware. She shakes her head. Dad’s face becomes red while speaking out in defense, “Actually, Rose, she’s never—

He stops mid-thought. And gives me a certain look. The one I know means that it’s right to obey Rose—no matter how silly her request—because this is her house. And the food processor. Rules. Order.

“I apologize, Rose. I guess Jenny should know better as the daughter of a chef, but she’s not even seven years old yet, so I guess we should giver her a break.” She doesn’t seem moved. Instead she points at all the silverware while moving her hands back and forth. I wonder why he doesn’t give you a break? Like last week when he lost his keys and he blamed you?

I wait for Rose to deliver each stern gesture. I try to record the specific order in my mind. But it doesn’t make sense. Who cares where they go? Instead I count the petals on each of the tiny hand-painted pink flowers. Seven. Plus seven. Equals fourteen. Pay attention to the knife, stupid. Rose was very upset about the knife. What did she say again? I quiver in fear. Don’t talk back to elders. Except bad people.

When we finish dinner, Rose offers some us some chamomile tea.

Dad says we’d best be off to catch the bus back home. Rose protests, “Oh, I was hoping that you and Jenny could stay and watch my favorite show with me.”

He agrees, reluctantly, observing the bag of kitchen thingamajigs near the door.

Rose sits in a small pink reclining chair while Dad and I sit on the couch. He picks at his thumbs, impatiently, while we wait for the show to begin. Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true…

The Golden Girls. The eldest looks like Rose. I can see why she likes this show so much.

Bored at first, I begin to bite my thumbnail. Stop. You don’t want him to try and get the poison again.

By the end, I secretly grow to like the show. I glance at Dad’s profile in the flickering screen light after the group hug. He winces.

Before the end credits finish, Dad rises from the sofa. “That was—uh—real nice, Rose.”

“Oh isn’t it just the most wonderful show?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little mushy for me. I like more action movies—myself—but I guess it was okay. Everything except that stupid group hug.”

Rose laughs.

She made him do something he didn’t want to. And got away with it. Like Madeline and her rainbows.

1993: Ante Up

A crisp fall breeze quivers up my spine as we exit Price Chopper supermarket.

Dad waves to someone in the parking lot. Who is that? I squint harder into the blinding afternoon sun. Nothing. Maybe you need glasses?

The mystery man yells, “Hey, Tom!”

Dad bellows back, “Ozzy! Hey-a buddy.”

Oh fuck. It’s Ozzy. What day is it? Wednesday! How much worse could your luck get?

Ozzy leans against his silver Oldsmobile waiting cheerfully for Dad and me to approach. I don’t smile as the grocery bag digs into my scrawny hand. You know what’s coming next. Glare.

“Jeez, Tom we haven’t seen you in forever. The boys ask me about you every week.”

“Ah, sorry Oz. It’s been very busy getting Jenny back to school. Tough being a single father, you know?” Yes we’re very busy. No time for games.

“Well, there’s going to be a good game at my house tonight, if you want to come. I was just picking up the cold cuts and hoagie rolls for later.”

Dad hesitates. Please let him say ‘no.’

“Yeah, I’ll think about it Ozzy. Hey, is the Greek gonna be there?”

“Yes, the Greek, Porky, Jonesey. Everybody. Full house.” So what do they need him for then?

 “Yeah, well, I guess I’ll be there then. Still Eight-o’clock?”

Ozzy shoots back, “Like always!”

I shrivel inside. It’s a school night. A fucking school night!

 As we speed toward home, Dad asks, “Hope you don’t mind if I go to Ozzy’s tonight? You know Daddy hasn’t been in over two months.” Why ask? It’s not a real question. You’re going no matter what I say.

“You’ll just have to do your homework fast when we get home. I won’t have to feed you. Ozzy always has plenty of good food there.” I look out the window to roll my eyes. Yeah. Gross sandwiches.

Defeated, I nod. Yes, yes, yes…to all the bullshit until the day I turn 18.

When we pull into Ozzy’s driveway, a familiar feeling of apprehension encases my body. I wonder how many times you’ve been here in your life?

We walk in the middle of the first game as Ozzy yells, “I’ll take that and raise you a dollar.” The Greek glances up from his hand and announces, “Tommy! Hey guys! The Big Kahuna is here!” Why do they call him that? I guess ‘the Greek’ was already taken.

Dad smiles and nods making his way toward the trays of food. He whispers, “Take a lot. Ozzy won’t mind. He buys way more than we ever eat.” I grab two slices of ham, a piece of provolone cheese and slap them on a hoagie roll. Pass on the crusty yellow mustard.

“Jenny. You’re going to eat it dry like that? God. I don’t know how you do that.” You can’t control everything, can you jerkball?

After all these years, Ozzy doesn’t escort me into the back living room. Instead he calls over, “You know your way, right kiddo?”

Dad answers on my behalf. “Yeah, I’ll just get her settled in. Be right back for the next one guys.”

I fumble for the TV remote in the pitch-dark. “Alright, Jenny. If you need anything, just come and get Daddy.” Don’t worry. I won’t need anything except a new Father.

The light from the TV illuminates the room just enough for me to make out Ozzy’s bumpy tweed sofa. You’ve never actually seen this room in daylight. Weird.

I sit rigid on the sofa at first, waiting for Ozzy’s cat, Muffin to appear. Damn cat gives you the creeps.

After a few minutes, I turn to the guide channel. Ooh! Reruns of Bewitched followed by your favorite, Quantum Leap.

My eyes flutter a bit after two episodes. No. You can’t fall asleep before Quantum. At least Ozzy has cable. I look at the soiled pillow. It’s not like you’ve never laid on it before. Why do you hesitate every time?

Finally, I surrender and lower my head back.

In my right ear…Purrr Purrrr. I jump up. Oh Jesus, Muffins. You almost gave me a heart attack. Now please don’t come near me, sweet little kitty. Muffins and I come to a truce. She brushes past my leg twice and then she retreats to Ozzy’s bedroom once again. Good cat.

I hum the theme in my head as Quantum Leap begins. But Dad roars louder than the music. “Goddamit, I have a fucking full house. Right here. Jesus Christ. Slippery Tony—you son-of-a-bitch! That’s what they ought to call you.”

Shivering, I pull the crochet throw over my legs. Measured, Ozzy tries to calm Dad. “Tom. It’s okay. No need for that. We’re all friends here. Just enjoying a good game of cards.”

“Ahhh, fuck all of you is what I say. I’m the best card player here and you’re all just jealous.”

Shut up. All of you. I just want to watch one show. That’s all I get out of this. Do any of you pigs realize there’s a 12-year-old girl back here who has a history test tomorrow?

I groan as I wake to Dad rocking my shoulder. “Jenny. Jenny. Wake up. It’s time to go. These motherfucking bastards cheat like crazy. I got to get outta here before I punch one of them out cold.”

Eyes still bleary, I fumble for the TV off button. The time stamp reads 2:37 am. He’s leaving early, tonight. Must have been bad.

The boys groan faintly as we exit Ozzy’s. They’d probably kill him if you weren’t here.

The cool afternoon air, now piercingly frigid, slaps me in the face first. Then proceeds to paralyze my muscles one by one. Fuck this. As we get in the car, Dad scrapes some frost off the inside of the window. He peels out of the driveway, and races for home.

“Bastards think your Father is dumb, Jenny. But I do that on purpose. I won about fifty-seven dollars tonight, but they don’t know that. They are all so dumb. Your Father cheats like crazy, but they will never catch on to my system.”

Yeah pretty sure that all the ‘fucks’ and the ‘get the fuck outs’ confirmed that they’re on to your system. Fifty-seven dollars isn’t bad, though. Does this mean we will eat this week, or will you find some other way to blow it?

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.

1995: Almost Graduation

Dad moseys the old Plymouth down a narrow one-way street to drop me off for school. St. Mary’s Academy. The gothic stone structure always seems out of place standing next to a plastic-cluttered playground and a chain link fenced parking lot across the street.

Dad always says, “The church—with all their money—had this place built over sixty years ago by some famous architect. They even imported the marble all the way from Italy.”

When he made the decision in 1986, Dad pronounced, “Jenny you’re gonna go to the same Catholic school as your Father. In those days, the nuns beat us with thick wooden rulers.” He holds his sausage-link thumb and index finger up to approximate the ruler’s width. “Now it’s illegal for them to do that. But let me tell you, those nuns were as mean as any drill instructor Daddy ever had. Evil—some of them were too. They hated children!”

The car is now idling in front of the main entrance. I hear Dad going on, “You know, Jenny, one time me and my buddy, Gary, got to meet the Pope. We tried to suck the ruby out of the bastards ring, but we couldn’t get it. Can you imagine these so-called men of God wearing jewelry like that? It’s all a farce if you ask your Father.”

I wonder momentarily, why the hell did you send me here then? Ah who gives a shit. You’re in 8th grade. You’re about to graduate, and then you can go off and become the first woman President of the United States.

Basically, I’m a senior around here since the high school shut down in 1989.

Dad snaps me back to reality as he turns to me before letting me exit the cab, “Jenny, why do they have to take you on a senior field trip to goddamn Canada of all places? And to a theme park, no fucking less! You know that you and Daddy hate those kind of places.”

I give him a concealed death glare. I don’t know what I hate because I’ve never been allowed to go to any places!

 He continues, “And besides, you can’t go unless I go. So you better make sure that I am a chaperone for this little trip of yours.”

Defeat. I’m screwed for life. You will never give up. I just want one day without hearing your voice. I want to be cool like other kids, like Jessica, who gets to have boys sleep over. I want a mother. They seem to understand. As usual, I nod, “Okay.”

“Okay what? Make sure I’m on that goddamn bus. I’m not letting anyone take my daughter to Canada without me being there. Did you hear me Jenny?!”

Later that week, all 13 of us pupils, prim and proper, line up outside the stone church. We don’t dare talk in line as we wait to receive our diplomas; we have learned well the consequences long before this point. We are expected to behave perfectly and are shown no mercy should we falter.

Who cares? We don’t require words; we’ve learned to communicate through glances and gestures. We are practically family. No we are family! Brothers and sisters. We grew up together. This is the end; we have finally made it.

Even at the age of 14, we all realize, jokingly, that we will need therapy one day.

I feel proud in this moment and as the organ music begins to sound, I well up with tears for all of our achievements. Don’t lose it now; Get a grip!

Suddenly, Dad comes rushing toward the line with the look of a wild coyote.

“Come on Jenny, let’s get the hell out of here. This goddamn bitch says that you can’t graduate.”

Uh, he said “goddamn” and “bitch” in church. Oh my fucking God. Not graduate? But, I’m an A student.

I see her behind him. The principal, who happens to be a part Catholic nun, part drill instructor. This is not the first time that she and Dad have sparred. This is her revenge.

As I walk out with Dad holding my right arm, she grabs onto my left arm, and says, “Wait, Jenny, don’t leave. Let me explain to you what I told your father. You can graduate today…”

My face is burning red and I spin around to face her. I know in this moment that I will commit a sin that cannot be erased.

“Let me go, you fucking bitch!”

I rip my arm away and watch her face contort in shock. I hear gasps as my father and I make our way out of the church.

The fresh, June air that I breathe tastes surprisingly raw. This moment disappoints me more than any other in my life, so far. Shit. I earned this!

When we get in the car, the maroon vinyl seats stick to my already sweaty silk dress. I roll down my window and ask “What about my class trip tomorrow?”

“Well, that evil cunt ruined that for you too! Naturally, you can’t go now.”

My heads feels like it will permanently hang down at a 45-degree angle. This is his fault. He never wanted you to have fun anyway. He never tries to work anything out; it’s always bullshit drama.

 “Daddy feels bad, but we couldn’t let her push us around. How dare she tell me that you weren’t going to get your diploma, only a shitty piece of blank paper. If we weren’t in church, I would’ve punched that bitch right in the face.”

We drive around town for a while, but I am dazed. After a couple hours, the answering machine blinks red with several messages from my friends.

“Hi, Jenny. We all hope you are okay. Are you coming to the awards ceremony tonight? Will we see you tomorrow? The bus leaves at 7 am.”

How can any of your friends still care about you—the weirdo?

 Later there’s more. “Hi Jenny, this is Sara. I have your awards from tonight. We really missed you. Please call us.”

I want to pick up the phone and say, “No, I’m not okay. Please come and take me away from this prison.

Dad becomes more annoyed with every call, “Don’t these people ever give up? No! We’re not okay. We’re alone again. Just Daddy and Jenny. There’s no mother or sisters or brothers. Nobody really gives a shit about us.”

It’s 8pm. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. Dad realizes this and opens the cupboards to reveal the bare ingredients in the apartment: flour, sugar, milk, and a liter of grape soda. Like magic he whips us up some homemade pancakes and “maple” sugar syrup.

1997: Good Samaritans

“Jenny, I’m going to rest for a few minutes.”

Finally. Now you can get some homework done.

I call back, “Okay, Dad. I’m just going to work on my math assignment.”

I settle down at the kitchen table and open my notebook. Honestly, Course III started off as my least favorite class this year. I like math, but my teacher is really stern.

She’s stricter than the nuns at Catholic school. And you’re such a pussy. You were afraid she wouldn’t give you an A and he would kill you.

 But so far, I got it wrong. This is my best math course since 6th grade.

Just as I start setting up the word problem, I hear “knock, knock.” I jump at the sound and my heart is pounding. Jenny, you don’t ever answer the fucking door unless you know who it is. Do you understand Daddy? Ask your brother and sisters what happened to them when I tricked them and they answered the door when they shouldn’t have! You just can’t trust anybody. Too many psychos out there. You see the news everyday just like Daddy.

 I wince at the memory of Dad’s “secret knock.”

Just go to the door and look through the peephole.

 But I don’t see anyone. Wait! A little girl is standing there. I forget about Dad and open the door softly.

She gazes down, her blonde hair falling softly across her cheeks. I see myself in her at that age. Maybe 9 or 10. Shy. Who is she?

 “Can I help you honey?”

She stammers reluctantly, “Ummm, I heard there is a man who lives here who helps people.” She corrects herself, “That the people who live here help people.”

My eyes widen. My mouth drops open. Of course we’ll help.

 I assure her, “Okay, come in and wait here. Let me get my dad.” You’re so overwhelmed you forgot to ask her name.

I bolt up the stairs so Dad doesn’t startle when I call out. I try not to let him see my eyes well up as I tell him, “A little girl is downstairs. She told me that she heard from someone that ‘the people who live here help people.’”

“You have to come right a–” He hinges automatically upright before I can finish.

I observe Dad in his element. He has a purpose again. A mission. He introduces himself and quizzes the girl. “Hi, I’m Tom. Everyone calls me Uncle Tom, though.” He points to me, “And this is my daughter, Jenny. Tell me what happened honey, and I’ll see if I can help.”

She looks relieved. “My daddy lost his job last month and we don’t have any food.”

Dad doesn’t question her further, except to find out where she lives. She points out the window, “The apartments across the street. Unit 12F.” Excitedly, he responds, “Be careful walking back home and tell your parents that we will be there within the hour.”

As soon as she leaves, Dad says, “Jenny get me that huge box out of the water heater closet.” I work my way past the enormous roll of herbed contact paper, and fetch the corrugated container. I stand at attention waiting to receive further instructions.

But Dad has already crawled onto the counter so he can reach the highest cabinets above the stove and fridge. In a flash he hands me the paltry contents of our cupboards to load into the box. Two cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, four packs of dehydrated Ramen noodles, a box of Bisquick, a jar of peanut butter, and a package Little Debbie choc-o-rounds. Our food for the next two weeks until Dad gets his disability check.

“Aghh, Jenny. We don’t need this food. You and Daddy, we’ll be fine. Did you see the look on that little girl’s face?”

Now we have no food. I crumble inside as I see him hand me the last item. But I’m not surprised. I want to help her too. But I’m scared for us. Well at least you can mope in peace for five minutes while he delivers this box across the road.

 Instead he orders, “Come on! Get your shoes on,” while hoisting the large box up on one shoulder. “We have to go fill this baby to the top.”

Dad makes his way over to our neighbors units. One by one, we knock on doors. He tells people that a neighborhood family is in trouble. They are starving. I’m amazed. Can by can, package by package, the box overflows with generosity.