1998: A Missing Report

“Jenny, shouldn’t I have gotten your report card in the mail by now?”

I give him a worried look. Shit! What are you going to do? I play dumb, shrugging my shoulders, “I don’t know?”

He walks to the calendar, “Yeah, I always get one in the mail by now. Maybe I better call the school first thing tomorrow morning.”

Jesus, keep it together now. I stammer nervously, “That’s okay, Dad. I will ask them tomorrow about our report cards. They haven’t mentioned anything to us.”

He shoots me the skeptical look of a special ops agent, but doesn’t say a word. Phewww. He’s going to buy it. For now!

 “Alright, then. You just let me know tomorrow when you come home.”

Holy crap! That was close. So tomorrow is Friday. That buys you the weekend. And then you can come up with something.

 I compose myself long enough to excuse myself for homework time. I shut my bedroom door quietly, and proceed to unzip my backpack.

I look over my shoulder one last time to make sure Dad didn’t let himself in while I was pondering my last 48 hours on earth. All clear.

I remove my physics book, and two notebooks. There it is!

After several days hiding at the bottom of my bag, it’s all crumpled. I look over my shoulder again. You can’t be too safe. Life or death.

I breathe in with an audible gasp at the apparition in my doorway. Instantly, my face grows hot red. Oh. No. There he is. Please don’t let him come any closer.

“Jenny, Daddy just came up to see if you wanted a snack. You didn’t eat anything after you came home tonight. You’re thin enough. Like Daddy always tells everyone, ‘Gandhi ate more than you.’”

Motherfucker. That was close. Out of sorts, I say, “uh, no. I’m okay. I just need to do some physics homework for tomorrow.”

I point toward the book on the floor. Please let him be convinced.

“Oh okay, well Daddy was just checking on you. Don’t forget to ask about your report card tomorrow. So strange that it didn’t come this week!”

After he leaves. I sit in a heap on the floor. I look behind me at the window and consider jumping. It’s only two stories, you idiot!

 After several minutes, I reach in the bag for my report card and open it up. This time I shield it behind my notebook incase Dad walks in again.

A, A, A-, C, A. You’re fucked. I look back at the window again, wistfully.

 

 

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1996: Ripped

 Proudly, I scan over the last paragraph of my English report. You’re writing is really improving. And it’s so much easier when you can do your own work and not have him dictate everything…

Dad interrupts my inner voice as he glances over my shoulder. “Jenny, what are you working on there?”

Nervously, I stammer, “It’s just my English paper due for tomorrow.”

“Huh. Well you better let your Father read over that.” He grabs the loose-leaf sheets from the table before I can hand them to him.

I resent the anticipation. What’s he reading it over for? I’m a better writer than him. Now he will see that for sure and leave me alone…

 But as I glance up, Dad arms move in a mechanical flurry as he rips my report to shreds. The crisp, lined-sheets fall at my feet like confetti from a freshly bashed-in piñata.

You bastard! What are you doing? That took me hours! It’s my best work ever!!!

 “Jenny, I’m sorry, but this is shit work. It just won’t do. I mean, moreover? What the fuck kind of word is moreover! It’s no word that you should be using. Daddy is trying to teach you a lesson the hard way. I know I’m a bastard but you’ll understand one day.”

Fuck you asshole. Hmmm, let’s see. You’re a seventh grade dropout and I’m already in high school. And I’m an A student. And for your information, MOREOVER is a sophisticated word to use. And I’m going to use it all the time. Every day. When I finally get out of this shit hole and far away from you. 

 “Now, Poppa wants you to get out some new paper, and I’ll dictate to you. You can correct the punctuation shit—like you always do.” You mean like how you don’t know the difference between a comma and a period. Motherfucker.

 I see myself punching his face, where an emerging bulging purple veins meets his jaw. Boom.

But instead I try to control my visibly quivering hand as I retrieve more loose-leaf paper from my three-ring binder. As I struggle to copy his diction, the word MOREOVER echoes in my head, repeatedly.

When we are finished, Dad asks coolly, “Hey, do you want to watch Temple of Doom?”

Sure. Why do you bother asking, anyway? Do I ever have a choice? At least we can turn the lights out so I can tear up in peace.

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.

1989: Death By Scabies

Lots of kids get cut or bruised from playing or falling off a merry-go-round. But I got scabies in the third grade.

“Jenny didn’t I tell you that your goddamn Mother was back from California. You know how Daddy’s nose is…I could smell her from this hotel room. She can’t hide from me. Anyway, she had a fight with her n****r-loving sister, and she’s coming to stay with us for a few days.”

My mom is here? When is she coming over? I hope that she will like me. And maybe she and Daddy will make up and then she can live with us.

 As she enters the doorway, her eyes focus solely on my Father. She moves in a demure but elegant way.

“Thomas…”

Before she can continue, Dad interjects, “Deborah, you are the only one that has ever said my name right in my entire life! Thomas. Perfect.”

She replies, “Thomas, I know. You always told me that.”

“Deborah, you can’t hide your true feelings from me. I see your eyes…you are crying a little bit because you missed me.”

As I wait for them to forgive each other and be reunited for all eternity, she changes the subject.

“You would not believe what my sister did to me? She’s psycho. She had a fit because I left a damp towel on the closet floor. Excuse me, Di, but I just traveled across the country, to see you, my only sister, and you’re worried about a friggen towel. Get a life.”

Get a life. This is a new expression. Apparently one she picked up from living in California.

 “Well Debbie, you know your sister is nuts. It happens with twins. There’s always one that’s fucking nuts. I watched a program about twins on 20/20…” Before he finishes, Dad moves on to more pressing matters, “So, how long are you going to stay? Jenny and I are happy to have you here and we have plenty of room.”

I see her look of disappointment as she glances around the hotel room. Two double beds, a small TV, and a postage-stamp size bathroom. But we are grateful to see her. We don’t care how many goopy towels she leaves lying around.

Forcefully, Mom cuts him short, “Tommy, I’m not going to stay long. I already bought my ticket to go back to California. I’m going to try and work it out with my boyfriend. We have a beautiful apartment out there and I just love San Diego…Don’t try to change my mind either, Tommy boy. It won’t work. Oh and one more thing, I’m going to sleep with Jenny Penny tonight.”

Debbie and Tommy. This is the way things always progress. They always start as Deborah and Thomas. I wonder what occurred between them to cause this. A once lived and now lost perfect world? But my mom wants to have a sleepover in my bed. Finally! She’s noticed me!

 That night is glorious. I dream that my mom, the most beautiful creature I ever laid eyes on, hugs me tight and never lets go; but, by morning, she’s all business and back to the airport.

The next day, still recovering from my mom-high, the phone rings in our hotel room. It is my Aunt Diane. “Tommy, Tommy…”

I can hear her voice through the phone. She sounds irate.

“Di, she left for the airport already.”

“I don’t give a damn about her. That no good whore gave us all a disease.”

“What Diane, slow down. What disease?”

“Bumps, horrible little itchy red bumps on our ankles and legs. It’s fucking bugs, Tommy. I can’t even believe my sister stooped to this level. Fucking bugs! Both Bo and I got them from her, and we gave her ungrateful ass a place to stay.”

Dad manages a reply, “Diane, that’s fucking horrible!”

“Yeah, well we went to the doctor and I’m only calling you now so that you can get checked out. This is serious, Tommy! And the slut knew that she had them too.”

“She slept in Jenny’s bed the other night.”

The next day, Daddy notices the red bumps on his ankles and legs just as Aunt Diane had furiously explained. I got them too. Everywhere. Red, itching, burning, scabs.

These bugs bore under our skin, and lay their eggs there. Highly contagious, too.

“Jenny, this is why I won’t sleep with your Mother, anymore. Once I found out that she was sleeping with everyone, I lost interest. I don’t ever want you to be a whore like that when you grow up. A woman has to learn to respect her body.”

I wince at his calling my mother names. Why does everyone call my mother bad names? Even her own sister…

He shakes his head in disgust “Horrible woman!”

After a dramatic finale, Daddy’s scabies clear up in a week or so. But, I’m not that lucky. So far I’ve missed three weeks of school.

At first, I continue at school. Covered with long sleeve tops and pants. Segregated from my friends, especially during playtime. I hate being isolated, but being sick means that dad feels bad for me

“Jenny it’s horrible that you have a no-good mother, so daddy wants to get you anything you want today.” Reluctantly, I point to a pink Barbie Corvette. I’ve been eyeing it in Kay Bee toys for months. Dad doesn’t hesitate. He counts out a twenty, a ten, and five-dollar bill for the cashier.

Even though I get to play with my new bubble-gummy corvette at school, other things are not going so well. The bumps are getting worse. One day while we are lined up in the cafeteria, I accidentally bump into Chloe, who Daddy said “looks like a horse.” She yelled in a high-pitched tone while leaping out of line, “Ewwww! Get away from me! My mom said you have a disease all over your body. So gross!”

That was my last day at school until things got cleared up.

I know something is wrong when Dad worriedly says, “Come on, Jenny, we have to get you to a doctor. This is bullshit, you are not getting any better.”

We never go to doctors. Only twice when I was four or five. And I giggled uncontrollably when the pediatrician, a man, touched my chest with his cold heart scope.

The doctor warns, “Honey, this is going to hurt a little, but I have to scrape off a sample of your skin.” He takes my left hand in his rubber-gloved hand. The metal knife looks so scary that I blank out.

Cringe. I hate pain. But these bumps are never going to go away, are they?

 The doctor takes a couple samples, then announces, “I’ll be back after running some tests.” When he returns, he asks to speak to my father outside the examining room. The door is open. They are talking softly, but I can still hear their conversation. Super-girl hearing!

“I have bad news for you, Sir. Your daughter has a nasty case of scabies and they have basically taken over her body. Her system is growing weaker and she is unable to fight them on her own. If this continues, she will die, as these bugs are a parasite, and will continue to use her body.”

You can hear a pin drop. Die?

 The doctor continues, “We have one option. Currently, we don’t have a medicine approved here in the United States that can cure your daughter at this stage. What I am about to do—I could lose my medical license for. There is cream that comes from Mexico. I’m almost certain it will cure her. But you have to promise me never to mention this to anyone.”

With tears in his eyes, my father swears that he will never tell a living soul.

After we cover my body with the white cream, and, just as the good doctor promised, I am cured.

1986: Premonitions

We ride the bus to the Aviation Mall. Once inside, we walk to a cluster of phone booths. I notice the enameled blue bell near the coin slot. I wonder how a phone works. Dad inserts a few quarters and presses the square number buttons. I don’t know who he’s calling until I hear him say my Mother’s name, Deborah.

“Deborah, It’s Thomas. Have you been watching the news with this shuttle?”

I can’t hear her response.

“I predicted that, you know. Do you remember when I called you before it went off and said Deb I have a bad feeling about the shuttle; it’s going to blow up.”

I don’t remember him making this phone call to her. I wonder if she remembers.

Then Dad begins to raise his voice, “Come on Debbie. It’s Jenny’s first year going into Kindergarten, and you are leaving? Who is this man anyways? So you are just going to move to California with a man you only knew for a few weeks? What about your other kids?”

I don’t have visitation with my mother because Dad carries a piece of paper in his pocket, which proves that he owns me.

He always says, “Jenny, even before you were born, Daddy knew I wanted another daughter. I had a premonition. I saw everything…my ex-wife…re-married to a young guy. And Daddy knew that I would end up alone with you. When your Mother was unhappy, and wanted out, I told her to take the car, take the money, but give me the baby. So I made her sign this.” He unfolds a fragile looking piece of paper. It’s a contract written in her hand stating: “I, Deborah Lee give Thomas Paul full rights and custody of Jenny Leigh.” They both signed and dated it.

Dad says he’s a psychic. Not a phony like the rest of them. He told me about when he was younger and he predicted that President Kennedy would be killed.

 “Jenny, I was riding the bus to work one day, and just looking out the window when a cloud appeared in the shape of President Kennedy’s face. He said to me ‘Thomas, they are going to kill me.’ I asked the woman sitting next to me if she saw that cloud. Of course, she didn’t. Then I told my wife, right away, after getting home. She thought I was crazy. But wouldn’t you know it, two weeks later, I come home and she was crying on the bed with my mother. I thought she lost the baby, but then she told me the President had been shot! Kennedy knew the bastards wanted him dead and he told your Father.”

On my first day of school, Dad kneels down to meet my eye as he gives me some instructions.

“Jenny, I don’t want you crying like all these other kids. Little whine-blatts. No you have to be strong in life because it’s just you and Daddy.”

He snaps his fingers, saying, “see this, as fast as Daddy just snapped his fingers you will be graduated from school. That’s how time works. It goes so fast.”

“And don’t forget, Daddy keeps this paper your Mother signed in my wallet at all times in case anyone ever tries to take you away. Trust me, Jenny; she didn’t want you! But there is something very important and you have to listen to Daddy because this is a matter of life and death. If your Mother ever shows up at your school, then you SCREAM, “kidnap!” Do you know what Daddy means by screaming? I mean bloody-murder like I taught you to do if a stranger tries to touch you. Then run and go get your teacher.”

I don’t blink or breathe when he gives me these instructions.

1985: The Clearview Motel

I am my father’s last daughter. My name is Jenny. My father was 40 when I was born, and he had my whole life planned before I was conceived in my mother’s womb. “Jenny, you are not going to end up like Poppa did with no education and no family to stick up for you, you are going to be an A-student and get into college. You have to go for 12 years to college so you can be a doctor and maybe find a way to cut these bumps off Daddy’s body someday. Just remember, never trust anyone, not even your husband and children someday. You and Daddy rode the dragon’s breath to get here, and Poppa won’t give up.” I am 4 years old when he says this to me. Then he asks me if I know what the dragon’s breath is? I shake my head “no.” He proclaims, “God told me to go find your mother and God showed me what you were going to look like and everything. Poppa knew your mother wouldn’t stay with us because it wasn’t God’s plan. His plan was just for you to be born and do great things, but it’s not an easy road for you and Pop. That’s what I mean when I say we rode the dragon’s breath.” I give him a blank stare back. He keeps talking but I zone him out somewhat. In my mind I see a large dragon breathing fire, but it doesn’t make sense to me.

He finishes saying this as the automatic door to the Grand Union opens to behold the sticky asphalt parking lot, which is the passageway between the store and our cockroach-infested motel room. The long windowless hallway we walk down to reach our room seems familiar: it’s home. The contents of the room are simple: one steel door, a bathroom, a small telephone desk with chair, two queen beds, and a 19” television set on a brown stand. Dad walks over to the window to shut the blinds. “Daddy’s gonna lay down for a little while. I want you to practice your ABC’s the way Daddy taught you. Remember to stay in the lines and make all the letters the same size.” I sit down at the desk, and open my practice pad. There are two solid horizontal black lines and a dashed line in the middle. Those are the lines I can’t cross, make sure the letters are all the same size and distance apart. It’s going on 3:00 p.m. Dad already taught me how to tell time. I feel hungry. I had a Slim Jim for breakfast. No lunch yet, but it’s better to let Daddy rest for as long as possible. Tiptoe! Let this sleeping giant lie! I need to concentrate on writing my letters so Daddy doesn’t get mad again like he did yesterday when my practice sheets weren’t perfect. His shouting echoes in my ears, “Jenny what do you call this horse shit? You think this is gonna work when you get to school? No! Daddy told you a million times… look; this fucking letter is way bigger than this one… fucking horrible work! It’s a tough, mean world, and you have to be better than the rest of the kids. Don’t you fucking understand that you only have Daddy and no mother!” He proceeds to rip the paper to shreds, but I focus on the veins bulging from his neck, and the ominous tone in his voice. I want to understand why he is so angry; I want to do better next time. I hope he lets me live. I promise Daddy I won’t mess up again.

After I finish my ABCs, Dad is still sound asleep. I’m relieved, but bored too. So I walk into the bathroom, the only room with a door. I look at myself in the mirror and try to imagine myself with a tail. I turn around and press on my tailbone, imagining a grand tail covered in caramel colored fur. The thought makes me laugh hard, but I have to be quiet. The more I try to be quiet, the more I giggle. Jenny, don’t you ever giggle. Girls giggle, but Daddy is raising you to be a lady and real ladies don’t giggle. Suddenly, I’m startled to realize that Dad woke up. “Jenny what are you doing? You must be hungry. You haven’t eaten anything since 10:00 this morning, and its 6:00 at night. Are you hungry?” I barely nod my head and shrug my shoulders. “Well answer Daddy: yes or no. Okay, I am gonna go down to that little gas mart and get us some snacks…maybe some of that good sharp cheese and crackers and a grape soda. But first Daddy’s gotta check the results of the late double.” He flips on the TV set. “Jenny look at this. The goddamn son-of-a-bitches cheat! Fucking jockeys! I can’t believe a 30-to-1 beat out the favorite. Now you know these bastards cheat.” Dad flips off the TV in disgust. “Come on, let’s go see if they’ll let Daddy charge some cheese and crackers for us to share until I get my unemployment check in a couple days.”

The next day my mother visits. My mouth hangs open in awe and I stare at her in wonder because she is so beautiful. Her hair shimmers with copper and her skin is as radiant as rare fresh water pearls. She walks over to the bed and slides off her matte leather cherry red high heel shoes. I study the red gems while she talks to my Father. After a while, I slip one of the heels on my tiny feet, and then the other, and I begin to clomp around until they see me and start to laugh. “Thomas, look at Jenny Penny in my shoes.” Jenny Penny is my mother’s nickname for me. I don’t hate my nickname because I am flattered that she thinks about me enough to give me one. As fast as she appears, she’s gone.