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.

1985: A Surprise Portrait

I lick the chocolate from a frosted cake donut while Dad and I walk around Lake George. He turns to me, exclaiming, “Boy you really love those chocolate covered donuts, huh kiddo? They’re okay. But not great like they used to be when Daddy was a kid. The chocolate was real back then. Not like this chemical shit they make today. And the bear claws! You should have seen them.”

He grips both hands into fists to approximate the size of the donuts. “Those bear claws were Daddy’s favorite for sure.” I stare at him. Is it bad to like the chocolate more than the bear claws? The frosting on those tastes gross.

He nods. “That’s okay. Poppa’s got a clean napkin when you’re done.

I lick each finger before taking Dad’s napkin. Yum. Why can’t we have donuts every day for breakfast?

When we arrive at George’s Restaurant, Dad buttons his chef’s coat over his shirt. I notice a faded ketchup stain on the cuff. Why do Dad’s pants have black and white squares? And why didn’t he put his chef’s hat on today?

“Jenny I want you to stay next to Daddy. He motions for me to come closer. “Right here. Good. Next to the chopping table. Remember when you used to sit on Daddy’s shoulders for hours while I worked?” I glance up at him. “Yes. Well you’re too big for that now. So Daddy’s going to teach you something very special today.”

He removes the long silver blade from its sheath. Dad explained last week that chefs, like him, call it a butcher knife.

Today he takes the sharpening blade out too. I watch mesmerized as he clashes the butcher knife against the spear. Top over bottom. Bottom over top. Over and over. The cadenced metallic clang alarms and soothes me at once.

When he finishes wiping the blade edge on a clean towel, Dad looks at me and asks, “How’d ya like that? Your Pop is one hell of a chef, right?” I shake my head, yes.

From his back pocket, he removes a tattered grey book. “You see this, Jenny? This was my Father’s book, and one day it will be yours. Because no one else in my family is ever going to give a rats ass.”

Dad opens the book to reveal a diagram. He points. “That’s a pig. This one is a cow. Every cut of meat is here in these two illustrations. Every chef has to be a butcher too. We have to know every cut by heart.”

He points to the uneven lines drawn over the outlined animals. “Not many people know what your Father knows and one day I’m going to teach it all to you. You might have been too young to remember, but Daddy took you along when I slaughtered some pigs. You were a good girl. Just stood there and didn’t cry.”

I stop listening to Dad for a moment to see if I can remember the pigs. There was that place with a fence and a barn, and Daddy was with another man. But I can’t recall the ‘slotter’ part. Does Daddy mean he killed the pigs? A chill runs down my back.

By the time I look up, he is waving for me to help carry lettuce from the cooler. Dad lines up twelve heads of iceberg on the chopping block.

“Daddy will teach you how to chop like a real chef today.” I shrink. Today?

He winks but doesn’t grin. “This is very serious business. Daddy doesn’t ever want you to be afraid of a knife. You can’t cut yourself. Did you hear me? You can’t ever cut yourself. Not if you chop like a I’m teaching you.” Daddy, can I just watch today?

He rolls a head of lettuce toward his knife. Dad quickly slices through the middle of the sphere, and places the flat side down. He rests his left knuckles against the rounded outer edge.

“Now look at your Father. This is the right way. You never hold your goddamn hand like this.”

He unfolds his fingers laying them out flat and brings the blade over them.

“See. You’d cut your goddamn finger off in a heartbeat trying to do it this way. And it would slow you down. Cooking is about expedience!”

Dad quickly rolls his fingers back under his palm. He chops briskly. The blade blurs. Dad purposely brings the knife against his hand. I wince. No! Don’t watch. “See. Did you watch? I told you. You can’t get hurt.” I exhale as Dad reveals his unscathed knuckles.

‘Tomorrow, I’m going to show you how to use the peeler. Always pull it toward you. Never away like these amateur morons. That way you have all the control. But for now, come here and put this butcher knife in your right hand.” My hand quivers as he places the blade’s handle in my grip. He pulls up a chair so I can reach the chopping block.

“Now what do you do with your left hand?” I curl my fingers under reluctantly. “Whoa! Hold it!” Dad flicks my thumb. Ow.

“What’s that doing out there? You want your thumb chopped off?” I shake my head, no! Dad shoves my hand closer to the lettuce.

“Uh. Wait a second. Hold the knife straight. Not on an angle! And not so tight. You’re gripping that handle too tight.” I watch as he flicks his wrist back and forth and then straightens it. It’s heavy, Dad.

My eyes gloss over as I begin my first few chops. Don’t cut yourself! He’ll scream and turn purple.

After a few minutes, I feel the blade slicing through lettuce with ease. You did it. Like a chef. Like Dad.

“Good girl. That’s enough for today. Daddy’s so proud of you! You’re my daughter for sure.”

I set the butcher knife down as George, the owner, walks into the kitchen. I pull Strawberry Shortcake toy out of my skirt pocket, and sniff her hair. Ahhh, I love you Strawberry Shortcake. We did it.

Dad’s raises his voice. He faces George head on. “Fuck you, George, you mother fucking bastard. This is my kitchen and I will instruct the waitresses to do as I see fit.”

George snaps, “Tom, this is my restaurant. I’m the owner, and if you want to work here, you’ll have to do things my way.”

“Oh no, you cock-sucker. Chefs run their own kitchen. You think I’m a dumb fucking Greek, huh?”

George shrinks slightly under Dad’s glare.

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. Because chef Tom knows you’ve been fucking some of these waitresses and unless you want me to drive a fucking bus through the front window of this place, you’ll give me control of this kitchen.”

I crouch behind a corner, gripping Strawberry Shortcake until my sweat coats her glossy skin.

“Tom, I think you better go home for the day. Nobody threatens me in my own restaurant.”

With one blow, Dad pops George in the nose. Even with my eyes closed, I feel Dad grip my hand and drag me out of the back door.

Dad keeps swearing as we walk. Mother fucking, cock sucking, no good piece of shit.

After a couple blocks, we reach my favorite shop on the strip, Tom Tom. Dad browses the pocket knives while I examine a pair of beaded pink moccasins. Dad catches me. “You like those?” I shake my head up and down. He smiles and says, “Good. We’ll take these in my her size.”

Outside the shop, a man sits on a metal stool next to a tall wooden frame. Dad walks up to the man. “Hi, my name is Tom and this is my daughter, Jenny.”

“Nice to meet you, Tom. My name is Ron. Ron Peer.”

“You a painter, Ron?”

“Yes. I paint portraits.”

“That’s perfect. I’ve always wanted a portrait done of my daughter. I’ve got the money. We’ll be your first customers today.”

“She’s very young. Can’t be more than four years old. It might be difficult for her to hold still. It takes quite a while for me to paint a portrait.”

“Nah. She’ll be fine. She does what Dad says, right honey?” I stare at Ron while he mixes oil paint on his palette.

“Okay, then. I’ll do my best, then.”

After a few minutes, I begin squirming on the stool. This is so boring. Why did Dad want to do this?

Ron instructs me, “Try to hold still, honey. I know it’s hard. But I’m working on your face and I have to get that right, okay?”

Dad glares at me. I wring my hands, nervously. When will the painter man be done?

Finally, Ron puts his brush down and shows the canvas to Dad.

“Wow. That’s fantastic work. But what about her arms and hands?”

“I’m sorry, sir. She was just fidgeting too much for me to do that part, but it’s a perfect likeness of her face.”

“I can’t argue with that. How much do I owe you?”

“It’ll be two hundred dollars, sir.”

Dad rolls out ten crisp twenty-dollar bills. And shakes Ron’s hand. “Well, I’m still disappointed that you couldn’t paint her hands, but I have to admit, you’re one hell of an artist.”

While we make our way back to the apartment, Dad turns the painting toward me, “You like it, baby girl?”

I nod.

“Daddy always wanted to have this done. You’ll have it forever, you know?”

I stare at the oil strokes that compose my face. So that’s what you really look like?

1998: Martha’s Vineyard

While straining my eyeballs to force back tears, I crumple the Martha’s Vineyard permission slip into my knapsack. You know that’s not happening. Just like the Spain trip.

Rushing toward the double doors, Mr. G interrupts me. “Jenny. Why don’t you smile? It’s the weekend! And you’re going to Martha’s Vineyard.” He grins from ear to ear revealing a double set of laugh lines. “Just don’t forget to bring your permission slip in by the end of next week.”

I muster a half smile. If only you knew, Mr. G. If only you knew. I might be a straight-A student and in National Honor Society but that doesn’t change anything for me. It only makes him proud. It’s all for him. But one day, I’m going to make something of myself. And I’ll go everywhere. Travel the world!

Dad doesn’t seem to notice the glum look on my face, which gives me time to soften it before he does. “Ah, Jenny. Good. Dad’s got a new idea about how to bring my message to the people. I know more now. It’s got to do with Orville Street! The blessed Mother came to me this time.”

I groan. If you committed suicide, would he notice? Or would he just carry on with his fantasies?

Sunday night, I find the permission slip crushed underneath my Calculus book. “Dad, um, I know I can’t go, but here’s a permission slip for the National Honor Society Trip to Martha’s Vineyard. We’re supposed to return it even if we’re not going.”

Dad stops rocking in his white chair. He slides his hands forward to reveal the black marks along the armrests. “Jesus Christ, Jenny. What is it with that school of yours? I mean these fucking projects they make you kids do. Fifty dollars for supplies. Trips to Spain. That’s another couple grand. They never consider the parents! And it’s okay for everybody else’s parents. They all have two salaries. A mother that helps out. Now I have to feel guilty. I have to be the bad guy.”

I consider what Dad says. In a way he’s right, but he makes such a big deal out of everything. And if he wasn’t such an asshole, I’d have a mother too. He’d actually have a job. This is his responsibility. He wanted to be a Father. He alone wanted you to be born. So stop feeling bad for him!

Instead of turning it in on Monday morning, I decide to leave the slip in my bag for a few more days. This way you won’t have to be embarrassed all week. And deal with the questions. And the sad faces. As if it’s happening to them! Oh Jenny, why can’t you go? Because my Father is pathetic and we’re so poor we don’t eat half the time.

Two days later, I see Mr. G while I’m on duty in the school store. Jesus. Please don’t let him embarrass you in front of everyone here.

“Jenny. Glad you’re joining us for the trip to the Vineyard!”

“Uh-I-uh, what?”

“Well that wasn’t a real show of enthusiasm was it, young lady?”

Shut up. Let it blow over. Ask him later.

“I heard from your Mother earlier. Everything is taken care of. You’re going to love it there.”

My who? My mother? All the cash register keys jumble like I’m on a psychotropic trip. You’re hallucinating. You’re dead. It’s like in Ghost. You’re a gone-r.

Apparently Mr. G regards the rapid flutter of my eyelids as sufficient confirmation.

Mom awaits me on the track before practice. She motions for me with vigorous hand gestures. She’s beaming. What the hell is going on?

“Jenny Penny!”

“Hi Mom. What are you doing here? Have you talked to Mr. G?”

“Oh yes, did he tell you the good news, love?”

“Yes. He-he told me that I’m going to the Vineyard. I’m so confused.”

Mom winks and grins ear to ear. “Mom planned that surprise for you. Your Father called and told me you couldn’t go a couple days ago. Then the strangest thing happened. I got the money together so you could. I’ll tell you one day how I did it, but for now I just want you to enjoy the trip.” My jaw drops with shock. According to him, you’re not allowed to be shocked. Ever. About anything. But this qualifies as an exception.

“Thank you, Mom. I can’t believe you did this for me. Wait—I mean—what did Dad say?”

“I just told him that I wanted to do something nice for you. He’s okay with it.” He’s what?

As I whirl my pack in the rear seat, I expect Dad to protest. But he doesn’t. “So your Mother finally decided to be a real mother for once in her life. I’m glad. It’s the least she could do for you after you and Daddy starved and were homeless all those times while she was living the good life in California.”

I wait for the catch. Nothing.

But Dad tricks me. He calls Mom the day before the trip. “Debbie. I know you paid for the trip for our daughter but she can’t go. I’m sorry but I don’t have any money to give her. She can’t go there without extra money.”

I hear her voice emitting through the phone. But I sneak upstairs and lift the receiver to eavesdrop anyway.

“Tommy. Calm down, Hun. I have the money for Jenny. An extra $75.”

Dad is thrown off his guard. “Oh. Well-uh—why didn’t you bring it over? Why don’t you bring it over now?”

“Oh no, Tommy boy. I knew I couldn’t trust you not to blow this money on a horse. I already gave the money to Mr. G. He’ll have it for her when she gets on the bus.”

“Jesus, Deborah. I’d never do anything to hurt Jenny. I give this kid everything. You don’t even know the shit I’ve had to pay for in school projects—not to mention her clothing every year.”

“I know Thomas, but… She called him Thomas. That was smart. Thanks, Mom. For trying. Even though we’re never going to get away with this. “…This is the way this has to be. Just get Jenny to the bus, and she’ll have everything she needs.”

I lay the receiver down with deft silence. How did she do this? Are you really going?

Dad drops me off at the bus, but he parks the car instead of just pulling up and letting me hop out.

He waves to Mr. G. and begins to excessively shift his weight left to right until he reaches the bus. Well you’re going to be popular after this. Dear God, just sneak on. Get passed them and keep your head down. It’s too late now. He can’t pull you off. Who are you kidding. Of course he can.

While shaking hands with Mr. G, Dad shakes his head. “I’m sorry about my wife’s behavior—Jenny’s mother—I still call her my wife. Anyways, I heard she bothered you about some money.”

“Oh no. It was no bother at all. I have it all right here for Jenny. I’ll give it to her once we get started down the road.”

“Oh of course. No it’s just that Deborah—she has a habit of exaggerating. She knows I’ve raised Jenny since she was four days old. Been involved with her schooling. You know that better than anyone.”

Mr. G simply nods and begins to call names. “Raise your hands if you’re here. Emily, Ryan, Nicole. Good.”

I see Dad slink away to his car. He must be regretting this already. When you get back, get ready to pay the price. But it’s going to be worth it.

When we reach the ferry, I tear up. I’ve never seen the ocean before. You look like a dork.

The ferry ride sweeps every strand of my hair in various directions. Mr. G feeds the seagulls’ oyster crackers from cupped palms. The sun shrouds us in a warm blanket. My skin smells of sweetly buttered toast. Oh Mom, this is the best gift you ever gave to me! Now I understand why you loved California. The water. It’s magnificent. One day, I’ll live near the ocean, Mom. I promise.

1994: Another Act of God

For Easter break, Dad allows me spend the night at my friend Lauren’s house. Lauren’s parents buy all the brand-name snacks like Doritos and Fruit Roll Ups. And they don’t nag us while we squeal over Dirty Dancing.

Dad’s hyper after I return home the next day. You’ve been away for more than an hour—eye roll—so you know this is how he’s going to behave.

“Jenny, you’re not going to believe what Daddy found this morning while you were at Lauren’s!”

I never ask what. I just wait for his words to terrorize the air.

He strides over to the front door and points to the spiny green mat outside. This was lying there, perfectly, outside our door.”

In the palm of his hand he holds a small tree branch. Tree branches fall all the time, right?

“Do you see it Jenny?”

I narrow my eyes in confusion. Nope.

“God left this for your Father! It’s a branch shaped exactly like a cross. Right outside our door. Laying there. Just like this! Can you imagine the odds of a tree branch blowing off in the shape of a perfect cross and landing dead center on our door mat!”

No but I can imagine what the authorities would say if they knew I lived here with you. Please let this be one of his 24-hour notions.

 “This time your Father’s not giving up. Seven years ago when you were only a little girl, God came to me in a dream and told me his name. But I forgot it when I woke up. Well, I didn’t tell you but last week God came to your father again. But this time he kept me awake all night so I couldn’t forget. God said to me ‘Thomas, you must tell the people they can have whatever they want and do whatever they want. And my real name is Gabazar.’ He kept your Father awake all night repeating his name, Gabazar. And his message to the people.”

You know God doesn’t do things like that. Not that you have conversations with him. There was that dream about Jesus when you were 8 years old. But you didn’t go around telling everyone that Jesus gave you sparkly pastel fairy dust.

Hurry think of something to escape! 

“Dad I have to finish my math assignment for tomorrow. I’ll be in my room if you need me.”  At least he can’t check over math homework.

Despite my breath of relief for the afternoon, I am wrong.

The branch shaped like a cross doesn’t turn out to be one his 24-hour notions.

“Jenny, Daddy’s worried about just leaving this cross lying around when we leave the house. I mean what if this place burned down. I need a way to protect it and display it. I want to have a giant wooden cross carved, and then I’ll whittle out a special opening for this one to fit in.”

Dad traces the curves of the branch with his index finger as if he’s mentally measuring. Hatching his plan.

“That way, when I walk through the streets bringing God’s message to the people, I can carry this.”

You can divorce your parents, right? He can’t be serious. This is far even for him.

“You know they’re probably going to kill your Father, right?”

Who, the voices in your head?

“They always kill people who tell the truth. Your Father will die a martyr. I can’t help it. God chose me. He chose Moses once and now he chose your Father. We are the first two of God’s new chosen people, the Gabazarians.” Refusing to look at him, I lower my gaze, counting bits of carpet pile—praying that the real God will send my real Father to rescue me.

Convinced of his calling, Dad hand-writes what he calls an official church document for the Gabazarians. He brings the document to the notary, and hangs it with a single blue tack in our kitchen near the cordless phone.

“Jenny. I want you to record a new message on the answering for Daddy because you have a much better voice. Here you go. I wrote it all out for you exactly as I want you to say it.”

I reluctantly accept the loose-leaf sheet he hands me. I shake as I read the words, “Hello, you’ve reached the home of the Gabazarians, God’s new chosen people. We’re not home at the moment. So please leave a message, and we will get back to you shortly.”

Please leave a message with the number of someone who will save me. This man can’t be your Father. He just can’t.

I don’t know how I utter these words with such clarity. But I do. Because I have to.

1995: Ants in the Pants

Each $100 car Dad procures presents us with a particular dilemma. Last year, Mrs. Smith’s car lost reverse. The flowered contact paper that Dad hastily applied to coverer over rusty body holes brushed the lawn each day as we drove over the grassy hump—the barrier between stone parking lot and road.

Now the retired taxi.

Rumors about Dad punching the crazy cabbie wane just as he discovers that the back brake lines leak.

“Goddamnit, Jenny. It’s always something for you and your Father.” He looks up at the pop-corned apartment ceiling as though he can see straight to heaven. Shaking his fists, he proclaims, “God, Lord Gabazar. I’m going to do your work. I’m gonna to get your message to the people, but could you cut my daughter and me a break for Christ-sake?” Jesus. Not Gabazar again. Can’t we just go back to being good Catholics? I swear I won’t complain about Sunday Mass at 7:15am anymore.

“Well, the hell with this, Jenny. You and Daddy will have to fix it ourselves. Like always.”

Let’s get this over with. Let’s pray the jack doesn’t fail this time. Pumping that up last year while he screamed, “get this motherfucking car off my stomach” scared you for life.

Dad grabs his toolkit and pries the triangular orange jack from the trunk. “Now, Jenny, you remember how to pump this up, right? In case this fucker falls on your poor Father, like last year?” Fighting back howling laughter, I nod with a slight snicker.

While Dad inches his way under the car, he yells, “Motherfucker! Who put this goddamn nut on here? A thousand-pound gorilla? Jenny! Hand me the half inch would ya?”

I scan the toolbox. Where is it? Nine-sixteenths…no…hurry up idiot, he’ll be growing impatient.

“Motherfucker!!!” I’m hurrying. Give me a second.

“I-m—uh—I’ve almost found it…”

Dad keeps yelling while scurrying out from under the car.

Jesus. He’s getting crazier by the day. Now he’s gonna kill you for not finding the socket in under thirty seconds.

I brace myself for a backhand across the bridge of my nose. Instead, Dad scampers around the parking lot while shaking his pant legs. “Dad?” I call out softly. Oh well, let it go. At least he’s not after you.

When he loops back toward me, I hold the half-inch cylinder up. Disinterested, He yells, “Didn’t you see what just happened to your Father?” I narrow my eyes in confusion. “Fire ants! Thousands of them all over this shitty fucking driveway ate me alive! I have to go in and change my pants. Watch the car and all this shit!” I look down to see the tiny red villains marching over the jagged stones. Jumping back in surprise, my cheeks begin to quiver. You’re going to lose it. He’ll kill you if you burst out laughing. Suck it in. It’s not that funny. They ate him alive. Yes, it’s fucking hilarious.

After Dad disappears for a moment I squat behind the mailbox and double over. He returns just as I compose myself, again. “Sorry, Dad.”

“Yeah, yeah, you probably loved seeing your old man getting eaten alive. After I move this car, just hand me the tools I need.”

I shoot him my aye-aye-captain look while he jams a screw in the left back brake line—followed by the right one. “Well that oughtta hold us. Now we just have to find some sucker to let us pass inspection. And why should anyone care. You don’t really need back brakes, anyways!”

1998: Open Wounds

I run through the familiar woods, roots passing beneath my feet, imaginary streamers rippling in the breeze alongside. Now the stinging sensation barely present on my bottom lip. You’re free when you’re here. Safe.

Free from his tyranny. The bully’s reign will soon be over. But you gotta play it cool. Just one last year. You have to graduate. And run. Don’t ever let him stop you from running.

 As I emerge from the towering pines to the expanse of gravel track, someone yells, “Jenny. Jenny Penny!”

Mom?

My feet move with their own rhythm despite my protest. I drop my head toward my knees as the runner’s nausea washes over me. Heaving, I hear Mom’s voice again over my shoulder.

“Jenny, man you can run fast. No wonder you’re the best one on the team. You know I could run like that when I was your age. You got that from me.”

Twirling around, I face her. I expect her expression to be happy, but instead her face contorts to a look of horror.

“Jen? Hun what happened to your face?” She takes a step back to examine me further.

The throbbing returns to my lower lip. Damnit. Get your lying face on. No don’t. just tell her the truth and run away with her.

I run my index finger over the dry edges of the wound. “Oh this? It’s nothing, Mom. What happened is that—is that—I fell.”

I avert my gaze from her penetrating eyes. How many more times are you going to have to lie for him?

As I wait for Mom to hug me, she waves her arms in the air. “Bullshit! You think you can lie to me like all these other fools? I know that bastard Tommy did this to you!”

I shake my head no, but her words run their course. “No, Jenny. Don’t even try to lie for him. I’m your Mother. You don’t think I don’t know?”

If your face weren’t red hot from adrenaline, she would see your shame.

As she continues, oblivious, I scan the exposed track for team members, for coach. Please don’t let anyone hear this. You can calm her down.

“This is a mother’s worst fear. He’s doing this to punish me, that bastard. He’s beating you the way he beat me. You know he kicked me in the stomach the day I came home after giving birth to you? He wouldn’t let me feed you. He wouldn’t let me even hold you. Everything I did was wrong!”

An imprint of my Father’s black shoe lodged in Mom’s abdomen sticks in my mind. He’ll pay for it all one day, but for now you have to stop her.

My eyes boar into my mother. I plead, “Mom, please, please don’t say anything to him. You know what he’ll do to me. He’ll kill me.”

“I knew it! So you’re admitting what I said is true?”

“Yes, because you knew. But I’m begging you, if you care about me, leave this alone. I’m almost out. One more year, Mom!”

“I don’t know, Jenny. I don’t know if I can keep letting him get away with this shit!”

Don’t you get it? You were there once! Don’t you care about what will happen to me? It’s not like you’ll be there to save me. It’s not like you ever have been.

“Mom, please. I need you to promise me.” I reach across my cheek to wipe a preemptive tear.

“Okay, Jenny. But just this once.”

“Thank you, Mom. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

Coach drops the team off in the school parking lot. I run toward Dad’s car. Shit we’re late again.

I hop in swiftly. Dad smiles and waves at Coach, but when we speed off he launches into an attack.

“Can you just answer your Father one fucking question? What do you people do that makes you so late? Every fucking day you’re a half hour to an hour late. And I’m the poor bastard, the Father, who has to wait for this bullshit! Now do you think that’s fair?”

Yeah I think it’s fair! Because everyone else my age has their driver’s license and a car so their mommy and daddy don’t have to wait for them!

“Well do you, Jenny? You better fucking answer me when I talk to you, or I’ll smash you again!”

I stammer, “No, Dad. It was just some people were slower getting out of the woods today. And I’m not really sure what happened. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is no fucking good. I’m done with this shit and you’re done running for your punishment!”

I grip my jaw to match my balled fists. You’ll have to kill me first. I’ve given my life to you. Not this. This one thing. It’s mine.

“Speaking of bullshit, and I ought to kill you for this…your Mother called me just before I left. Went on some screaming rant about how I hit you! Fuck that whore. I’ll do whatever I want with my own daughter.”

No, actually. Fuck you, and fuck her, too. She betrayed you? She really did? Why?

His grip on the wheel tightens. “Didn’t I motherfucking tell you what to tell everybody? That you fell. Or are you too stupid to follow that one simple instruction?”

“No Dad. I swear. I told everyone. They all believed me. But then…” Do you really want to take his side? No! But she gave you no choice. Survival. Not much longer now.

“But fucking, what?”

“Ummm, well she just showed up at the track. Causing trouble. She didn’t believe me. She was causing a scene. I kept telling her what really happened. She’s the one who…”

“Your mother is a fucking asshole. Now I hope you see why your Father is raising you. Why I had to take you from her. She’s a horrible woman.”

I lick my wound, literally, to soften the chapped parts, and give him a military nod. You’re a wimp. But wimps get to live. Just keep running. That’s where you’re free.

1986: Lab Rats

Knock. Knock. Knock…on the steel motel door. Mom?

Dad springs from his nap and squints through the glass door hole. When will I be tall enough to see through there?

He cautiously opens it after a moment of consideration. A man and a woman dressed in white coats confirm Dad’s identity.

Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Dr. Vasquez and this is my colleague, Dr. Mirabelle from Duke University. We have been studying genetic causes of the disease, Neurofibromatosis. Our studies led us to your family. Normally the disease skips several generations but we found your family to be an anomaly in that sense.”

Dad shakes his head. “Oh good, Doctor. I’m glad you people found us. Duke University, you said? That’s a good college. I’ll gladly help if it means getting these things cut off me one day.”

They’re here to cut Dad’s body up?

When Dad waves his digits in my direction, I flinch. “This is my daughter, Jenny. She doesn’t have the bumps. Thank God.”

Dr. Mirabelle lays a leather case on the edge of the bed. This causes the bumpy orange and brown coverlet to drag on the carpet. “Thank you for the information. What we would like to do, with your permission is perform a preliminary test on you today. Perhaps we could perform the same test on your daughter as well?”

No! I don’t have bumps! Dad just told you that. No cutting, please.

“Okay, doctor. Where do we have to go for the test?”

“It’s a simple test which involves us inserting a few eye drops to determine if you carry the disease within your genetic structure. We would be doing the same test on your daughter, right here.”

“Let’s do it. Hey, I have a question for you? How long did it take you to become a doctor?”

Dr. Mirabelle ignores Dad while proceeding to snap open the leather case while Dr. Vasquez examines him quizzically.

Dad clarifies. “I know it must be at least 12 years right?” He points at me, again. “Because I told my daughter, Jenny, here that she has to become a doctor one day and cut these things off of me.”

I imagine blood squirting from bumps covering Dad’s body. No. I’ll never become a doctor. It’s too scary.

With a smile, but no answer, Dr. Mirabelle approaches Dad with a small plastic bottle in her right hand. Dad tilts his head back. Drip. Drop. Both doctors examine his eyes, holding the top and bottom lid open with their thumb and first finger.

They don’t talk while they inspect him. They just nod and make small gestures.

I consider bolting out the steel door. Run before they get you.

But I don’t know where I’d go if I run. I imagine an angry family of cockroaches waiting for me in the dank hallway to avenge the one Dad killed yesterday. A shiver runs down my spine. I back against the wall between the kitchen and the bed, waiting my turn.

Dr. Mirabelle extends my eyelid. She assures me, just a single drop and a look. Ouch. It burns. It burns. Once they are finished, I stay pressed up against the wall like a dried out piece of gum stuck to the bottom of a shoe.

They ask Dad a few more questions, and shake his hand. “Thank you for participating in our research. It will help us immensely in finding the genetic basis for this disease. Also, you should be aware that you don’t have the markers, what we refer to as lisch nodules, for Neurofibromatosis in your irises. Neither does your daughter. Our finding should confirm that none of your children have this disease.”

Dad nods and smiles generously at their response. “See, Jenny, Daddy knew I wasn’t supposed to get these fucking things on my body. It’s part of the curse that no good gypsy woman put on my goddamn mother for being cheap. She cursed our whole family. Even you. That’s why your Father had to have you. God wanted that curse broken, and you’re the only child who can do it.”

I imagine my grandmother and the gypsy woman. What’s a curse? Is that why Daddy rode that dragon? How can I break the curse?

1993: Santa’s Sleigh

Dad flops an issue of Better Housekeeping on the table. “Daddy stole that from the doctor’s office a couple weeks ago.” I raise my eyebrows, disapprovingly.

He responds, in a way, to my silent protest. “Listen, I only took it because I want to bake a recipe they have in here. Besides they don’t need this anyways. They have fifty magazines laying around that office.”

He fans the pages successively, back to front, until he finds our new quest. He spreads the magazine in front of his chest and points to a gingerbread Santa Claus, complete with eight reindeer, Rudolph, and a sleigh.

I try not to roll my eyes, but it’s too late.

“Daddy’s serious about this. We’re gonna make this today. You know your father loves a challenge…but we’re not gonna use their gingerbread recipe.” Of course not. So why did you need the book?”

“Go get Daddy my father’s book. You know…the grey one.”

Now I know he’s serious. Grandpa’s grey cookbook only comes out when he means business. As I feel for Dad’s box in the cavernous credenza, I wonder about my imaginary grandfather. Dad always says that he was a cheap Greek who only gave Grandma a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids—stern, a chef, a gambler, and dead from smoking unfiltered cigarettes before I was born.

I hand over the tattered book with care. I watch as one of the hand-stitched threads breaks free from the cover—while Dad makes his way through—the individual pages sliding in opposite directions. “Good. This book is eighty years old, you know? My father was lucky he didn’t come over on the Titanic because he came around that same time. Early 1900s.”

Dad shakes his head. “Of course. You might know it’s Daddy’s bad luck. I always find the recipe I want, last.” I scan the lined ledger; marked with a dark blue numeral 55 and the title, Ginger Bread, the recipe contains few ingredients. Let’s hope this is simpler than the baklava.

“So you’re probably wondering why I needed the book if I wasn’t going to use their recipe, right?” I don’t dare give him the satisfaction of a nod.

“Daddy just needed to see how they assembled the sleigh and what they used to make the road and the reins. I’ve been thinking, and I have a great idea for all of it. Come on. Get your coat. We’re going to the mall.”

What’s at the mall for baking?

When we arrive, Dad makes a beeline for the coziest confection shop in town, The Candy Kitchen.

While we wait our turn, Dad scans the cases. “Okay, Jenny, this is what I want. Three pounds of that rocky road candy, and then I’ll get some of that shoestring licorice for the reigns…”

I look at the prices, confused. $10.95/pound? Did he win a horse? The smell of sugar and chocolate wafting into my nostrils makes my mouth water. Well at least we can eat this crazy gingerbread Santa! Merry Christmas!

He nudges my shoulder. “Daddy hasn’t told you the best part yet. We’re not going to eat this, naturally…” I feel my heart sink. Then, I’m out. We better not be giving it away.

“We’re going to mount the whole thing to the coffee table for show.” Someone call a doctor. My father has officially gone off the deep end; he’s not going to eat candy—his favorite food in the world.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t get a couple chocolate covered marshmallows while we’re here—for ourselves.” I instantly forgive him a little.

After the clerk bags all of Dad’s goodies, she informs him of the $54.07 bill.

What in the fuck? That’s seriously a month’s worth of food!

Dad pull out his rubber-banded money wad and forks over the dough.

At least you’re getting two marshmallows out of the deal. Be thankful.

After getting out all of the ingredients, flour, baking soda, ginger, molasses, butter…and four more hours of labor, Dad is ready to assemble the whole thing on the coffee table.

He approaches the job as if he’s been called in for open-heart surgery. “Goddamn mother fucker. Rudolph’s leg snapped. Quick, Jenny, hand me the confectioner’s glaze. Dad uses the white substance to mend Rudolph and adds his red button nose.” Pheww, that was a close call.

I roll my eyes again, and smile too. Santa’s sleigh and reindeer look even better than they did in Better Housekeeping.

After two weeks pass, school dismisses early for Christmas break.

I see crack marks where the gingerbread has dried out. Gross. What are we going to do with this thing after Christmas?

Dad doesn’t seem to notice. “Come on. Dad got us some cheap candy at the dollar store. Let’s watch some Christmas movies or some shit.” For real? Is this like a trick, and we’re going to end up at OTB? Why is he so happy? It’s Christmas. He hates Christmas.

After Dad powers on the T.V., I wait for him to adjust the rabbit ears. But the picture broadcasts completely clear. Where am I? I pinch my arm. Oww. Not dreaming then?

“Haha. Daddy tricked you for Christmas! The cable company had a special for new customers signing up. No money down. Free HBO. We probably won’t pay the bill and they’ll shut us down in a couple months, but who cares!”

My mouth drops open as Dad changes the channel to reveal Dudley Moore dressed as Patch, the elf. The Santa Claus. Yes! While we watch John Lithgow float into space, the chyron reveals that Home Alone is next! Woohoo!

Dad catches me eyeing the gingerbread sleigh while Kevin sleds down his stairway. One day, you’re going to have a house just like that. “Hey, Jenny. You can eat that if you want to. We had it up long enough.”

I sniff Santa’s reindeer, realizing that they don’t smell like gingerbread anymore, and the once cherry red reigns have turned a cotton-y pink. Gross. Aw, screw it! Probably the best meal you’ve ever had on Christmas. Go for it.

1988: Knickers

When the recess bell rings, we all charge out the front doors and race across the playground toward the brick wall. Sure enough, Dad waits for us by the secret archway with a fresh shipment of popsicles. My classmates shout “Mr. K, I want orange…I want cherry…grape, please…” over one another.

Dad grins. “Yes, Yes, children! Don’t worry. Mr. K brought plenty for all of you.”

Why does he do this for my friends? Some of them aren’t even my friends. Is this his orphanage?

I wait until the herd clears to grab the last grape flavor. Dad slaps my hand—knocking the Popsicle back in the box. “Jenny. You know better! Come back to the convent for a minute while Daddy washes it for you first. Who wants to eat all that nasty glue they put on there.” I salivate as the dribbles of water re-freeze along the sides on the Popsicle. “Thanks, Dad. Got to get back to the playground now so I don’t get in trouble.”

“Okay, I’ll see you at 2:15 sharp. Just come back to the kitchen. Daddy won’t walk over to pick you up today. I have too much cooking to do, here. We’re getting ready for this big dinner, tonight. A hundred nuns.”

For the remainder of recess, we play red rover. You’re fast. They’ll never catch you. You’re home free. I tag the brick wall so hard that pieces of mortar cling to my hands. Ouch!

At 2:15 we line up as instructed. Dismissed. I bolt once again toward the brick archway, tagging the chain link gate as I cross the finish line.

I pass the gravel parking lot—sights set on the back kitchen door—when I notice Sister Jean outside gardening. Dust flies up as I halt suddenly. “Hi Sister, Jean.”

“Oh, Hi Jenny. How was school today?”

“It was good. We got to play red rover, and we’re learning multiplication. I like multiplication much better than subtraction.”

“That’s wonderful news, Jenny. I know your Father will be looking for you so you best run along to the kitchen. I’m sorry we haven’t had a talk this week, yet. I’ve been very busy getting the grounds cleaned up for fall. I hope you will stop by my room, tomorrow. I love it when we pray together.”

I nod and smile. I love you Sister Jean.

Dad stops chopping onions and looks up at the clock. “You’re late, Jenny.”

“Sorry, Dad. I saw Sister Jean outside on my way in. I just stopped to be polite.”

“Okay good. You don’t want to make your Father worry about you. Not with crazy people out there abducting babies. You remember everything I taught you right?”

“Uh-huh.” Run, scream bloody murder, never go with them, they’ll kill you anyways.

“Good, now do Daddy a favor. I want you to get the ketchup out and squeeze some into the bowl slowly as Daddy mixes the meatloaf.” I hold my breath to block out the smell of the onions and raw ground beef. “Hold it! That’s perfect. Dad scoops a bunch of raw meatloaf in his palm and molds it. See, Jenny. It’s perfect. Daddy’s teaching you to be a first class chef one day.” Someday I’ll never touch food again. I’ll hire a chef to cook for me.

Pleased with his work, Dad declares a five-minute break, outside. “Hey, how did your friends like the popsicles?”

“They really liked them, Dad.”

“Good. I don’t know what it is, but your father always had a thing for being good to kids. I think it’s because we grew up poor with nothing. Your Father starved, you know. Many times, I would get nothing but lettuce with salt on it for dinner. This was back in the 1940s. You know my Father would only give my poor Mother a dollar a week to feed sixteen kids. He was one of the foolish Greeks. While every other family was buying up land cheap and owning restaurants, he was gambling like a fool.”

Dad shakes his head at the memory and continues, “God has a plan for you and your Father, Jenny. I know he brought me to this convent for a reason. One day, your Father is going to take this place and turn it into an orphanage—like I told you—so poor kids will never go without again.” I look at Dad sheepishly, not sure how to respond.

Godmother Madeline breaks the silence by pulling up in her frosted blue Plymouth. She unloads two large black garbage bags from the trunk. “Thomas, I was at the Salvation Army today and picked up some clothes for Jenny.” Madeline hands me a brown wool coat—suggesting that I try it on. I cringe. Is it dirty?

While I lean on the hood of our new white Oldsmobile, she pulls out several pairs of checkered wool pants, too.

Impatiently, Dad interrupts, “Madeline, Jesus Christ! They’re knickers! That’s what kids who were dying-dead-poor during the depression wore. I’m not putting my daughter in that garbage.”

“Now Thomas, you shouldn’t judge an honest gift that came from the heart. Just take the clothes. They will be good for Jenny.”

The regional dinner for the sisters goes off without a hitch. Dad seems to have forgotten about his earlier annoyance with Madeline, but on our way home, He really opens up on the Northway. We’ve only owned the new car for two weeks. Dad says, I wouldn’t have bought this piece of shit if I realized it was a Diesel engine!” I stroke the fuzzy burgundy interior. I hope we have this car forever. It’s so nice.

Dad glares at me intently at me, now. “Jenny, I want you to open the back windows. And when I say, so that there’s no other cars around us, throw those goddamn garbage bags full of rag-clothes out the window.”

I look at him as if to resist. I hate the clothes. They’re itchy. But Godmother was just trying to be nice.

But Dad persists. “Now! Well, don’t just stare. Hurry up and throw those bags—both of them—out the goddamn window before someone sees us.”

Obedient, I watch as the bags bounce on the inky pavement behind us. What will Madeline say when I never wear the clothes?

1995: OJ

Calm down! Stop shaking! He would kill you for this display of weakness…but he’s not here.

 I involuntarily continue to tap my feet up and down under my desk. The vibration radiates through my thumb and forefinger causing me to drop my pencil. It’s no use. You can’t concentrate. I glance at the clock. Still only 1:52 pm. Hurry up final bell. It’s the 3rd of the month. Shopping day!

Why do you get so excited when you know you’re going to starve for 28 days after he blows the whole disability check? And he’ll blame you like last month. Just concentrate on this math assignment, for God’s sake!

Yeah, but it’s our day together. Our only thing we do together…because he worries about the bumps…

I recall his words, “Jenny, I’d rather see you have nice clothes than food to eat. Besides, food makes you fat like your old man. You don’t ever want to get fat and look bad in your clothes. Trust Poppa! And you know Daddy doesn’t believe you can spoil kids by buying them things. It’s how they take care of those things and how thankful they are to have them.”

Instead of solving equations, I nervously pick at a checked up edge of my desk while my mind continues to wander toward one of Dad’s routine rants.

“Jenny, you and Daddy have a special relationship. Shopping is our special daddy-daughter thing. It all started with your Father’s family curse—neurofibromatosis—when I was 16. My face was clean and handsome, too. Then the first one appeared on my chin while I was in the Marines. I tried to shave it off twice, but it grew right back. Came from my fucking mother’s side. My father never should have married that woman, but that’s another story. Anyways, your Father never had trouble getting a woman because of these things. But in the 1970s, I went to the beach and a little boy screamed bloody murder when he saw me. The kid thought I was some kind of monster with these things. So after that, Daddy figured, fuck it. Truth be told, I don’t like being around lots of people anyways. That’s why we never go to parks or dirty fucking fairs. Who knows what animals pissed there or what disgusting people do in those public places?”

Could that one event have embarrassed him so long—to last for all these years? Will I get the bumps when I turn sixteen, too? I examine my body each week to make sure none have grown. Just a few ugly brown birthmarks so far.

RINGGGGGGG. At last! I quickly fumble for tonight’s assignments among the rumpled papers stuffed into the bottom of my locker. You really got to clean this mess up, jerk.

Leaping toward the double doors, I spy Dad’s car parked right in front. Please don’t let anyone see you get in the contact-paper car. You’re having enough trouble at this new school. I toss my backpack onto the seat first, and hop in with a giant grin on my face.

Dad wonders aloud, “What the fuck are you so happy about?”

Oh no! He forgot about shopping day. He said we might even go to the good mall this time.

My head hangs while my smile quickly dissolves into despair.

He catches on. “Oh! You think we’re going to the mall today, don’t you?”

I nod. Phew. He remembers! But why does he seem so angry?

“Well you can forget about that today. Your Father is all riled up. Do you know what the fuck happened today? They let that n****r, OJ Simpson—fucking wife killer—off today. Acquittal my ass! He held his hand taut when he tried the glove on. And the fucking thing has his blood on it.”

Dad holds his hand up with all of his fingers spread open like a turkey.

“For fuck’s sake if I held my hand like this, I couldn’t get my hand in a glove either. This is why your Father hates sports players. We give these people way too much power. I want to kill that n****r myself. If Nichole Brown were my daughter, he would have never got away with this shit. Mark my words, Jenny, if you ever try to date one of them, I’ll kill you myself.”

I wince at Dad’s suggestion of violence. I hate you! If you only knew what we learned in school. That people like you are called racists. You should be sent to jail!

He shifts the car out of park, but jabbers on. “Don’t get Daddy wrong. I don’t believe in hurting black people. A lot of them were cleaner and better behaved than white people when I was a little boy living in the city. It was them who didn’t want to mix with the whites because we were too dirty. And I agree with them. The races don’t belong mixing, for Christ sakes.”

How do you know? People can do whatever the hell they want to!

 “Really. Believe me. Daddy almost got killed when I was in service because I was on my leave and I gave my seat to a black woman on the bus in South Carolina. People wanted to beat me up. But I didn’t care. And my first friend when I joined the military was black. He showed me how to defend myself because I was one of the shortest guys there. But he liked me because I was tough.”

Yeah. Yeah. Heard these stories a million times. You say one thing and do another all the time.

When we get home, Dad fixes my usual snack of Ramen noodles. I devour them, and excuse myself for homework. “That’s fine, Jenny. Go to your room, and do that useless shit they assign you in school.” Exactly what I intend to do, jerk.

 “…What you really ought to be doing is staying down here and watching the news with Daddy to learn some real life lessons here. This goddamn commie country we live in, where our white women are no longer safe.”

But I have homework! And I have to be a straight-A student, right? Besides I’ve heard enough of your racism for one day.

 As I trudge upstairs, the cream and tan pattern in the rug makes creates a hypnotic mood to drown out Dad’s curses at the T.V. What if the whole world knew what a bastard he is? What if they really, did? Would everyone think you were just his evil daughter?