1991: Back Together Again

The glorious summer doesn’t last long. Dad is bored again.

We hop in the old red and white Malibu to pick my mother up from the airport. She’s beaming. I note every detail of her outfit: a white sleeveless button down shirt and navy blue and white polka dot skirt with black pumps.

Dad asks, “Deborah, how was your flight?”

“Oh it was great. I love to fly anyways, always did.”

Jesus, are we really going to put her in this old jalopy? Al Bundy’s Dodge isn’t this bad.

 As we ride down the Northway, mom rolls her window down and sticks her head out into the stiff breeze.

Annoyed, dad says, “Deborah, what’s a matter? Are you sick?”

“No Tommy. I’m fine, I can just smell your exhaust and I don’t want to get a headache.”

Shit. She is too good for us! I give this two weeks tops.

 When we arrive at the apartment, mom surveys the place. This takes roughly a minute.

“Tommy, there’s only one bedroom! And why are all of Jenny Penny’s toys in there?”

Because! That’s my bedroom! My first bedroom in my life!

 “Well, Deborah, I gave the bedroom to Jenny. She’s our daughter and I thought she should have it. I just sleep out here on the couch.”

Yeah, and we’re happy this way too!

 “Well, Tommy, we can’t sleep on the couch. We’re adults, we need the bedroom. Jenny will have to sleep on the couch for now.”

Dad shoots me a glance to say, I’m sorry. My hands are tied.

I immediately retrieve my bubblegum pink Barbie corvette from the bedroom. Malibu Barbie is driving and Ken is in the passenger seat. Ken is so dorky looking. Why do I even let him sit near Barbie?

I sit on the couch. My mother hasn’t stopped talking since she got here, but not one word to me.

Who gives a shit if they steal my bedroom. I’ll just watch HBO all night on the couch, and eat potato chips.

The next day, my mother tilts her head out the car window like a permanent fixture. I can see that Dad is fuming.

“Debbie, is the smell really that bad? I can’t even smell anything. I’m afraid you’ll get hurt with your head out the window like that.”

Her heads pops back in long enough to pronounce, “Tommy, we need a new car. This is ridiculous. I can’t stand these fumes!”

“Well, I don’t know about my credit.”

“What about someone in your family? Could someone cosign for us? What about your brother, George?”

“George?! Ha! My bastard brother is so greedy, he’d sell one of his own children for five dollars.”

“I’m serious, Tommy. Let’s go ask him.”

Uncle George is no pushover. He makes my mother give him a grand for this favor.

As we back out of Uncle George’s country house, Mom proclaims, “I can’t believe your brother, Thomas. Taking my money like that. What kind of family is he? And his wife! She couldn’t give us a cup of coffee. I mean, come on! That’s fucking ridiculous. I was ready to go and buy my own coffee and say ‘here, brew this for me.’”

“That’s my no-good brother for you!”

Later that day, we pick up the keys to our new silver 1989 Oldsmobile. It’s the first car we ever bought from a dealer. Usually we walk everywhere until Dad finds someone that will give us a car they were about to scrap for $100.

The new Olds has plush grey interior and burled wood details. There are silver buttons that make the windows go up and down automatically, and cold air vents for summertime.

Even in the back seat, I’m a princess in this car.

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.