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.

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?”