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?

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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?”

1991: Lilacs and Fire Hydrants

Dad taught me the fire hydrant game when I was six. Red ones count for double points today.

Summer foliage hides some of them, even though I already know where each one pokes out. Of course, it’s considered cheating if you call out ahead of time.

Another block, and you can call the splotchy yellow one on the corner of Bay Street and…

Before I am able to point exaggeratedly, Dad pulls off the side of the road in a hurry.

I look at him quizzically as my arm dangles toward an abandoned brick building instead of my secret fire hydrant.

Dad laughs, “Oh you thought you were gonna beat Daddy, huh? Well, don’t worry my child. You’ll have your chance. But first, your Father wants to get some of these beautiful lilacs. If I’m quick, no one will notice.”

Dad sneaks behind the car as traffic whizzes by. I watch as he slices his boot knife through each branch. I can smell the lilac aroma before he lumbers back in the driver’s seat.

Dad hands the lilacs over to me, “Here. Hold these we get home to put them in water. God! What a beautiful deep purple this year. Your Father’s favorite flower, you know.”

I know, Dad. You stopped for them last year too. But did we really have to interrupt our favorite—our only—game we play together?

 Despite my annoyance, I stick my nose down and take a deep breath. I admire each clover-shaped petal. Purple is my new favorite color.

 But then I see them. No! I’m dead!! It like that movie, Invasion of the…

I must be screaming, though I don’t realize it, because Dad’s voice exceeds my own, “Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Stop the screaming. What is it?”

I hold up my arms to reveal thousands of ants covering me.

“Oh, Jesus! It’s just a couple of little sugar ants. Stop being a pussy, would ya?” Dad tries to brush them off, but there are too many.

Dad pulls to the side of the road just long enough to take the bouquet from my hands and toss them into the road.

“Fucking, shit. I hope you’re happy, Jenny. They’re gone.” Fine. It wasn’t my idea to get them. Maybe you should have checked for bugs first!

 We ride back to the apartment in silence. Even though the fire hydrant game is over, I continue to count them all as we pass by.