1987: The Curse

At the counter, I take a piece of paper and fold the bottom half into the middle. I bend the two top sides inward to meet the lower flap, sliding my thumb across the triangular edge. The last downward fold forms my paper envelope.

I inspect my work to make sure the edges line up. Envelopes are for grown ups. Because they have envelopes at the post office. And the post office is special because people have P.O. boxes there.

I make up a P.O Box address for the front of my envelope. While I draw on the scalloped edges of my stamp, 25 cents, I hear Dad yelling behind me. “Christ! Don’t fall out you son of bitch!”

A quick swivel of my stool reveals Dad gripping his giant two-handled saucepan while flipping it upside down. I hold my breath to see where the cake will land. Last time it was on the floor. And Sister Nancy ran in to see why Dad was screaming.

“Fuck! Ah! Good, you little bastard. Ol’ Tommy is smarter than you. You can’t beat a Greek.”

The chocolate cake lands safely on the silver tray. Steam roars out—fogging Dad’s glasses. The cake stands tall. Like the hat—the striped one from Cat in the Hat.

Dad walks around the butcher-block island to examine his masterpiece. “Look at this dark chocolate cake, Jenny Leigh.” It’s Daddy’s best one yet. Pillsbury dark chocolate cake mix. It’s the only one to use—as good as your Father could make it homemade. Just wait ‘til the nuns see this! They never had a cake like this for a picnic.”

Freshly baked cake smell drifts in my direction. My stomach growls. I hold my belly and turn back to my stamp artwork to distract myself. Behind me, Dad changes the paddle on the mixer so he can make chocolate frosting.

How come he can’t make you a cake? How come there’s always frosting on cakes? It tastes too sweet. He should let me have a piece before he ruins it.

I carefully place my envelope in my backpack. Don’t wrinkle, perfect little envelope.

At the counter, I stare at Dad hoping he will read my mind.

“Oh you came to watch Daddy? That’s good. I like it when you watch me. That way you learn and someday you will be a first class chef—just like your old man.”

My eyes meet his and then I glance back at the cake.

“Smells good doesn’t it?” Nod. Yes!

“Wait ‘til Daddy gets that dark chocolate drizzled over the top!” I shake my head. No!

“What you don’t like Daddy’s frosting? I know you do. You must. It’s the best in the world.”

“No Daddy. I don’t like it. I hate it. I like the cake plain.”

“Oh. Well, so what you’re telling me is that you want a piece right now?”

My stomach growls again. “Yes, please!”

“Well, there’s no way. No way, I can just cut a piece for you before everyone else eats it later? The cake is too thick. I could never fill in the hole.”

“Please, Dad? I’m so hungry.”

“No, honey. I’m sorry. But you have to learn patience.”

No it’s not fair. You’re always patient. And squeeze Daddy’s feet and back for him. No one ever does anything nice for you.

I glare at him. “I hate you, Dad. I hate you! And I wish you would die.”

“Oh my Christ. Did you just put a curse on your Father?”

What’s a curse?

“You did! You little shit. I know that look. My mother was a witch, you know, and she was cursed by a witch.”

Dad’s speech makes me forget about the cake.

“Fine. Will you remove the curse if Daddy cuts you a sliver?”

I don’t know if I should nod. But I do, so Dad will give me what I want.

“Fine, but it has to be just a sliver. My God, I’ll have to slave over it to fill that in.”

The thickness of the cake consumes the paper plate even though white bits peak through the thinnest parts.

I inhale deeply. Ahhh. A lovely chocolate cake, just for you.

Dad loads the nuns’ faux-wood station wagon. Cake goes in next to last. Followed by me, Sisters’ Nancy, Joan, Patricia, Mary and Dad.

No one will ever know about the missing piece of cake.

Dad soaks up rave compliments, especially for his famous potato salad and of course the chocolate cake.

On the way home, the motion of the car makes me drift into a deep sleep. What? What’s going on?

When I open my eyes, we are on the side of the road. I hear Dad saying, “The tire’s completely flat. Of course—my bad luck!”

Sister Nancy tells Dad there’s no such thing as bad luck. She says, “God knows what’s best for us all Chef, Tom.”

“Ack. No disrespect, Sister. But you don’t know my family. My daughter did this. Jenny put a curse on me.”

No I didn’t. I swear Daddy. I don’t even know what a curse is. You made that up, Daddy.

As Dad continues despite Sister Nancy’s protests, I hunker down in the seat. He’s going to be very angry with you later. When they’re all gone. No one will be able to protect you.

“Listen. Jenny said she was cursing me if I didn’t give her a sliver of that chocolate cake I made. She said I was going to die. I know of her powers more than she does, so I cut her the cake, even though it was the wrong thing to do as a parent. But she wouldn’t quit. Because the piece was too small for her, she said I would get a flat tire for my punishment instead of dying.”

No. No! Those are lies. I didn’t say that! I never said anything about a tire. I just wanted a piece of cake. I swear. I’m not a witch. I don’t have powers.

Sister Joan reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze while Sister Nancy frowns through the rear window.

After Dad changes puts the spare tire on—no one says a word as Dad drives back to the convent. Except for me. I say a prayer. Dear God, I’m not a bad girl. I don’t know what a curse is, but I probably shouldn’t have told Dad I wanted him to die. Please don’t let him hurt me.

1993: Chips in Our Heads

I know what to expect when I hop in the car after school.

Dad turns toward me before pulling away from the curb. He chuckles, “It’s the third of the month! You know what that means. We’re going to the mall to spend every last dime this crummy government gives us!”

An impish grin splashes across my face despite my guilt. Shouldn’t the money go toward paying bills or buying food? Or is Dad right when he says they don’t give us enough to live on, so it doesn’t matter anyways?

“Goddamn eight hundred dollars! You can’t buy much with that. Maybe a few new outfits?”

I blush at Dad’s suggestion. Mostly because I know he won’t buy anything for himself. Are you selfish? Are you making him do this somehow?

Dad finds his usual handicapped parking space at the mall. As we make our way down the wide aisle, I hook my right arm through Dad’s left arm per protocol. “Jesus, Jenny. Stop growing like a weed. Daddy just realized you’re taller than me.”

After asking Dad to chop my long hair into a shoulder-length bob last week, I feel all grown up. “Even though you made Daddy cry—cutting all your gorgeous hair off—I have to admit it looks nice on you. You could pass for sixteen years old now. And I must say I did a fantastic job cutting it!”

I roll my eyes a little. Dad the sides are uneven, and somebody made fun of me for it at school. But I still like it.”

Two teenage boys wearing cargo pants and dingy t-shirts make their way toward us. They point at Dad and me while they snicker. “Wow. That’s a hot young girlfriend you got there, Buddy!” Dad turns on his heel, jerking me around with him. “What did you say to me? This is my daughter, assholes. Haven’t you ever heard of old fashioned respect?”

To avoid the public humiliation, I duck into Lerner New York. The saleswoman asks, “What’s going on out there?”

“Well these guys thought that I was my Dad’s girlfriend, I guess.”

She rolls her eyes. “I am sorry, Hun. That must be a little embarrassing.”

“Yeah.” I finger all the clothes hanging on the racks. I base my selections on the softest garments to touch. And whether or not they are dressy. Dad prefers ladies to wear dresses and skirts.

When Dad locates me, I have four hangers draped over my arms. “Good. They look good. Go try them on. And don’t worry, Daddy told those assholes off. What kind of a world are we living in where a Father can’t hold his daughters arm?”

Ugh Dad. I’m sure it’s just because no one else does it! It’s 1993 not 1903!

Dad instructs me to buy them all as I twirl out of the dressing room. But I decide on 2 items. A maxi flowered skirt. And the matching top.

As we head down the mall aisle, I point to a store we’ve never been in before. GAP.

I glance back at Dad, pleading. “Well let’s go in, then!”

The clothes make my heart skip a beat. They are all neutral shades: denim, khaki, and black. I grab a sandy-hued, knitted maxi tank dress off the rack, and hold it up to my body. This is the best dress in the world. Almost better than the sailor dress from two years ago.

I search for the price tag. $69.99. A flip of the tag reveals an orange sticker marked, $9.99.

Ten bucks! My hands shake as I show Dad the deal. “It’s gorgeous. Now go try it on so we can get the hell out of here.”

Before I try it on, I admire the dress on the hanger and inspect it carefully. I saunter out of the dressing room on my tip-toes. “Very nice. Sometimes your Father wishes your Mother wasn’t such a jerk so she could watch you growing into such a nice young lady. You sure know how to pick out clothes, my baby girl!”

While we stand at the register, Dad makes conversation with the cashier. “Nice store. This is the first time my daughter and I have been in.”

She smiles and nods at me. I blush and turn away.

“That’ll be $10.06 with the tax, Sir.”

“Goddamn government with their tax. You know what kills me—it’s the pennies. Why do we even need pennies? Couldn’t it just be $10.05 or $10.10? It would all work out the same in the end.”

Unsure of a response, the cashier stretches out her hand.

Dad continues, “It doesn’t matter anyways because money is obsolete. Do you know what I mean when I say that?”

She shakes her head no.

“Well—computers! Just look at them. They took over the world. When I was a kid, there were no computers. But one day—mark my words—the government is going to put chips in our heads. Little computer chips.”

The cashier’s eyes grow wide and she steps back with discomfort.

“Well think about it. There won’t be any more theft. You won’t have money and they will know what money we all have and our whereabouts at all times.”

After getting no response, Dad points to me. “Just ask my daughter. I’m a psychic. I know these things. We’ve never made a sci-fi movie that won’t come true in your lifetime. Dick Tracey’s watch—I’ll bet they have one in ten years.”

Come on Dad. Let’s go. Before someone calls the police.

Dad winks at the cashier because he knows she doesn’t understand but he feels better for telling her anyway.

When we step into the mall parking lot, I’m still beaming thinking about my new GAP dress.

But Dad yanks my arm. “Next time Daddy is telling someone about my predictions, you speak up and defend your Father. I do everything for you—you selfish Bitch. The least you can do is back Daddy up once in a while.”

I don’t care what you do to me. I’m never going to back up your stupid predictions. Not ever.

1988: Hallmark Angel

Dad yells at the Off Track Betting screen. “Come on you no good cheating motherfucking jockeys. Fuck you, Cordero!”

He grabs my coat at the shoulder and pulls me off the slotted wooden bench. “Come on, Jenny. These no good cocksuckers took our last twenty dollars. Looks like we’re not going to eat again today.”

I stick the tiny orange pencil in my pocket while the odds slip falls on the diamond-patterned carpet. You can draw with this later.

As we make our way outside, the snow crunches beneath my ballerina slippers. “Jesus, Jenny. You’re lucky your toes don’t freeze off in those shoes. Daddy really wishes you would wear some boots and socks.”

I’m never taking these off. You promised I could dance, Daddy. But then I only had two lessons.

“I know you liked that dance class, Jenny. If you’ll remember your Father is the one who wanted you to go. But I couldn’t manage as a single father. If you’re mad at anyone, it should be your mother. I am angry at the bitch too. For what she’s done to us.”

I touch the tip of my nose. Numb.

Dad stops and looks up at the sky. “For once Lord, could you just give me and my daughter a break.”

I wonder if we could ride an elevator to the clouds—the really puffy ones—so we could talk to God. And see his face.

I envision the doors opening. Jesus stands there to greet us. His red sash drags in sea of marshmallow-y foam.

Dad tugs at my coat sleeve again—reality. I scurry a few paces to catch up. My feet glide on a patch of ice.

When we reach the bridge, I see the Finch and Pruyn paper mill sign. Finally! We’re getting close to the apartment.

There’s just enough room for me to march beside dad on the walkway. He insists I walk to the inside. The cars splash slushy goop on Dad. He turns back to swear at one driver, and then he stops.

Dad leaves me standing there as he backtracks. Where is he going? Is he giving up?

Walking over the bridge reminds me of the story Dad told me about the policeman who gave us a ride for a hundred miles of the trip back to New York from New Hampshire. Daddy keeps his card in his wallet—he said forever—in case he ever gets in trouble—in case anyone ever tries to take me away again.

Dad rushes back toward me with his right hand raised in the air. “Jenny. Motherfucker. A twenty-dollar bill—buried in the snow back there! Now you’ll always be my witness—that your Father is a psychic. You heard me ask God for this twenty dollars.”

You talked to the cloud, Dad. But you never asked for money.

He grins ear to ear. Come on. We’re getting a turkey club for lunch.

At the diner, Dad gives explicit instructions to the waiter. “Yes, I’d like my meat sliced very thin. Lettuce and tomato, finely chopped. Not too much mayo. I don’t like it soggy. My daughter will have the same thing.”

Turkey clubs? Why can’t Dad find money in the snow every day? Then we could eat. Even if God didn’t give it to him.

I woof my club down—toasted crumbs scatter.

Dad leaves a good tip. “Best turkey club your Father ate in years. Almost as good as my own!”

After lunch we stop in the Hallmark store. “Well, your old man has ten dollars left. Burning a hole in my pocket. Let’s buy you a gift.” He nudges me. “Go on. Pick out anything.”

I look at a glass shelf covered in porcelain and ceramic figurines. The porcelain girl—hands gently clasped in prayer—reminds me of myself.

I glance up at Dad.

“Oh you like that one? She’s beautiful. Looks like you. You can consider this a gift from Daddy to you. Just in time for your first communion next week.”

While we walk up to the register, I run my fingers along the smooth ripples of her white dress. I stroke her hair. I’ll keep you forever, communion angel.

1987: The Babysitter

Dad throws a hundred pound bag of flour over one shoulder. He carries it from the stock room to the gigantic floor mixer in the kitchen.

The mixer is painted steel grey. The silver bowl is large enough for me to fit inside. I watch the paddle spin round over and over. When the dough reaches the perfect consistency, Dad trades the paddle for a giant hook.

A little more flour, then some water.

I fidget with my hands because I have a big secret. Good girls don’t keep secrets. But what if Daddy gets mad at you?

“Daddy I have to tell you a story, but I don’t want you to get mad.”

“What is it, baby girl? You can tell your Father anything.”

I hesitate. Oh no! Now you have to tell him. Be brave.

I stammer at first, “Well, I think someone might have tried to do something bad. Like something you taught me about.”

“What do you mean something bad? Something bad to you?”

He looks straight at me now while the dough spins out of control—gumming up the paddle.

I continue, “Umm do you remember my babysitter at the lake?”

“Yeah of course! I met them through the motel when we lived there that one winter.”

“Umm, well one time when the husband was home, I had to go to the bathroom. But when I walked in, he was already there going pee. I got really scared and said ‘I’m sorry.’ I turned around to leave, but he said ‘wait!’”

Dad’s face grows hot. “That son of a bitch. This better not be the kind of story I think it is. I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”

Oh no. You shouldn’t have told him. What if the cops come again like they did last month at the Laundromat?

 “No Dad, it’s not really bad.”

“So what happened, then?”

I point down with my index finger, “Well, he told me to come and feel his pee pee down there.”

“That’s it! I’ll fucking kill that motherfucker!”

“No, Dad. Wait! Nothing happened. I just ran out of the bathroom with my head down.”

“Jenny, my God, that was almost two years ago! Why didn’t you tell Daddy before now?”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I was scared. I knew how mad you would be.”

“Well I’m not mad at you. But you’re a very strange child. Telling your Father about this so late. What if he tried to hurt you? No more of these crazy babysitters ever again! Never ever trust anybody—like you Father always tells you. And I fucking disregarded my own rule!”

Dad finishes attending to the dough quietly—adding more water to correct the earlier mistake. Then his voice softens, “I guess in a way, you saved your Father, Jenny. If you told me that story two years ago, he would be dead, and I’d be in jail now. You did the right thing to leave, but I want you to come to Daddy right away from now on. You can always talk to me about anything.”

I nod to promise, but I know better.

1995: The Martyr

After school, Dad and I stand in mom’s apartment. I peer out the floor-to-ceiling kitchen window that overlooks Glen Street. Someday you’ll live in a real house like one of the lawyers or doctors on this street.

Mom startles me from behind as she grazes my new mulberry-hued corduroy skirt.

“Look at your cute legs, Jenny Penny! Wow, Tommy! I’m surprised you let Jenny wear a skirt that short to school. The boys must love her cute little body.” My face turns bright red as I tug at the edges of my hem hoping it will magically grow longer. Thank God she can’t see you.

 “No boys better be looking at her. They know better because I’ll show up at that school with my bat. Besides, you know Jenny, Deborah. I’ve been letting her pick out her own clothes since she was seven. She insisted.”

 Mom persists a while and I can feel myself growing angry. Actually she doesn’t know me. She wasn’t around, so it’s none of her business what I wear.

Dad changes the subject. “Debbie, listen, forget about Jenny for a moment. I came to talk to you today about something really important.”

I retreat to Mom’s pastel sofa in the living room to give them privacy. But you’re still within listening distance. As Dad begins to talk, I trace a line around a light blue leaf so that I won’t bite my nails.

“Debbie, they’re going to kill me someday. Very soon. And I need to make sure you’re ready for that day. You and Jenny.” Who is going to kill him? Oh no. Not this again!

 “Tommy what are you talking about? Someone is out to kill you?”

“No Debbie. This is very serious. Once I get Gabazar’s message out to the people, I’ll be killed. You know like President Kennedy. And all my other predictions. I’ve already seen the future. God gave me a job, and I have to finish it soon.”

“Jesus, Thomas! That’s crazy talk. How do you know this Gabazar is God anyways? I mean couldn’t he be the devil trying to trick you?”

Dad explodes and walks out to the living room. Shit you can’t hide any longer.

 He continues making vigorous hand gestures, “Of everyone Debbie, how can you question me when you’ve witnessed so many of my predictions?” Pointing to me, Dad charges, “Jenny, you better tell your mother that I’m not joking around. You and Daddy have talked about this many times already. You tell your mother about the cross and all the other signs.”

Instead, I tear up. My fingers are still tracing the stitching in the couch but the room appears blurry. Don’t let the tear drop fall. Don’t! I clench my fist now, but it’s too late. I bury my head in Mom’s pillow. Crybaby!

Mom comes over and gently places her hand on my back. Why can’t she comfort you like this all the time? Why did she have to leave? She’s the normal one. Why does she hate you so much?

 “Thomas! Look at what you’ve done! You’ve upset our daughter. You can’t talk about being shot or killed or whatever right in front of her like that.”

I let time stop to record this moment in my mind. Has she ever stuck up for you before? Does this mean she loves you?

 “I don’t care, Debbie. She has to get used to it sometime. And so do you. My whole family, too. I’m not lying to protect you people any longer.”

For some reason I feel safe as Mom continues to rub my back so I let go and cry some more. The pillow beneath me soaked with tears. Are you crying because he’s going to get killed or because you want him to get killed?

 After a few minutes I sit up. He’s going to kill you on the ride home before they ever kill him, anyways.

 But Mom offers, “Hey, why don’t you two stay for dinner. I’m making spaghetti. Plenty for everyone. And I know you love my meatballs, Thomas.” She used his full name again. Oh please let us stay.

 Dad shrugs and accepts. He can’t resist the attention. The rest of the night she butters him up with compliments and pays him plenty of attention to take his mind off Gabazar.

1994: Hail Mary!

You should be in bed. It’s a fucking school night. How are you supposed to get A’s and be his personal slave?

Instead I kneel on the edge of Dad’s bed while squeezing his back and feet, vigorously. I know what he likes by now; he taught me since I was six years old. “Jenny, you have to squeeze Daddy’s feet good because I’m Greek. And the Greek’s are the smartest people in the world. They know that the feet control the whole body.”

Whatever! Just drop off already. Before my fingers fall off.

I detect the faintest snore. Good. Almost worn out.

 But Dad snorts, jolting himself awake. “Jenny, go get a pen and paper. Then come back and sit on the edge of my bed.”

When I return, he reminds me of his pain. “You know your Father doesn’t like to complain about pain, but when that bastard Doctor took my Darvon away last week, that was real pain. I asked God, why? Why would he put your Father through that? Why did he charge me with raising you alone?” Apparently you won’t be sleeping tonight.

 “But God told your Father not to worry and that he wants me to send the pope the right version of the Hail Mary prayer. The one we say in church, it’s all wrong.” Oh Dear God. Why have you forsaken me?

You can send random stuff to the Pope? Hi Your Eminence, I’m a lunatic. Also, here’s my superior version of the prayer that Jesus Christ probably recited to the disciples. See, I knew you would like mine better.

 He dictates while I write quickly. “Your Eminence, Your Holy Grace, my name is Jenny and I attend St. Mary’s Catholic School. I wrote another version of the Hail Mary prayer…”

He pauses, “You got all that so far, Jenny?” No! No! No! This is your shit. Why is my name on it?

“Yes.”

“Good. Now…Holy Mother of God…who gave us…” My hands continue to write but I block out his words.

The next day, Dad drops the letter off at the post office. Nothing will ever come of that.

A few weeks later, a letter from the Vatican arrives in the mail. “Dear Jenny, thank you for your thoughtful submission. His Eminence appreciates your devotion and consideration.”

What? They must be nuts there too!

 The next morning Dad marches into school with me. He shows the letter to the principal’s assistant.

“Oh, this is lovely. You must be so proud of Jenny, Mr. K.” What a load of crap. He’s so proud of himself.

“Yes, she a good kid. I thought you would want to see it. I mean it must be pretty rare to receive a letter signed by the Pope, right?”

“Yes, of course. In fact, if you don’t mind, we should hang it just outside the Great Hall.”

Thank God no one ever looks in that case. But this isn’t the end. You know he’ll be gloating for a long time to come.

1997: Chinese Push-ups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. A new personal low.