1998: Silence is Not Golden

I barely get in the car when Dad asks, “So did you find out about your report card?”

I know I’m in the wrong here. But could you give me a break? For once!

 “Yeah they said they are mailing them out next week.”

“Oh okay. I know they’re all A’s, like always! But you know Daddy. I like to save them.”

 Enjoy your last couple days of life…

 Monday morning comes faster than usual. I don’t have an appetite for breakfast.

“Jenny, Jesus! Eat your scrambled eggs.” I would but the smell makes me sick. And I don’t want scrambled eggs for my last meal.

When Dad lets me off for school, I walk toward the door with a series of foreboding steps. Today I have more important things to sulk over than the fact that I’m the last loser with no license and no car.

Why did you have to fuck up? Why didn’t you just write those stupid Spanish journals? You know why! Yeah, but he doesn’t buy excuses. Fuck it. Just tell him the truth tonight. He’ll be angry, but what choice do you have?

 I stand at my locker with my backpack propped up on one knee. I reach for my report card. Too bad no one was willing to forge a fake. Bastards.

What? I know it’s in here somewhere. I pull everything out. Ruffle through every folder. Shake out every notebook. Oh come on! You lost it? After all this? So you’ll just tell him that you lost it. But that you had trouble in one class because the teacher wouldn’t work with you. So maybe he’ll just pop you in the nose and ground you for the rest of the year.

 My stomach turns a little more with the passing of each class. Someone help me! Can I live with you, Lauren? Your parents seem nice. They let you date. And get a fake tan. And drive.

 I look up at the clock in 8th period. 2:04 pm. Dear God! You know that he’s already parked outside. Waiting for you.

 I walk with my head held low toward Dad’s blue Dodge Caravan. Fucking world is unfair! I’m sure none of these other parents would give two shits. So I got a C. So unlike me. Big Whoop. Maybe I’m more complicated than people think.

 I try sucking up to Dad a little as I buckle my seat belt. “Hi, Dad. How was your day?”

“My day? Where’s your report card, young lady?”

I don’t dare look at him. “Well, I didn’t want to tell you because I lost it.”

Dad groans.

My speech is hurried now. Dammit. Learn to lie better. “I talked to the office. They are going to give me a new one tomorrow. Let’s talk about it when we get home, okay Dad?”

He’s curt. “Yes let’s.”

As Dad pulls in the driveway, I can hear each stone pop as the tires roll over them. Be brave. Tell him the truth. He always says you can talk to him no matter what.

 He barrels through the door. “Dad, there’s something—

He cuts me off. Veins bulging. “No! No more talking or chances for you. I’ve given you enough chances you goddamn motherfucking lying whore. You’re no better than your slut of a mother.” I wince.

“I called the office today. They said, ‘Oh Tom we gave Jenny her report card last week.’” I try to interject, “That’s what—” He raises his hand. I wince again.

 

“Didn’t I tell you to shut the fuck up? Some things are going to change around here. First of all. No more of this boyfriend shit for you.” Fuck off. That’s been going on for two months. I’ll be out of here next year!

 “I’ll never trust you again. And to think, after all your Father has done for you. I’ve been telling you since you were little that you’re my last daughter. My last baby. You have to make something of your life or all my sacrifices are for nothing. And I’m not going to let some boy take all that away.”

I brace myself for him to hit me. Come on you sick bastard.

 “I’m not going to hit you. You’re too old for that now. Even though I’d like to rattle your ass.” Bullshit you’re just afraid of the authorities. Child protection. I should have told them the truth three years ago.

 “So here’s how it’s going to go. You lied. So your punishment is that I’m not talking for a whole week.” That’s a punishment? There must be a catch.

 Just then, a knock. Saved by the bell.

 Dad flings the door open. It’s Mary’s mom. She asks, “Hi Tom, can I borrow some sugar?” But he stands there silent. She asks, “Tom are you okay?”

Dad points to his mouth. My face grows red hot. Mary’s mother looks at me for guidance.

Furious, Dad points toward me several times. And then back to his mouth.

I mumble something to Mary’s mother. “He’s mad at me.” I consider running. Do you get the punishment now idiot? He’s not talking to anyone. And you have to tell them why.

 The phone rings. He won’t talk.

 Our neighbor, Bob stops by. He won’t talk.

He slaps me in the back of the head if I don’t tell everyone that I caused his silence because I lied. No one dares to ask me a follow up question. They know he’s a psycho freak.

 Five and a half days later. I nibble on a chocolate donut for breakfast. The icing sticks to my fingertips a little. I always thought silence was golden. It’s not.

 Dad walks toward me. Just leave me alone, would you?

 “Well, Jenny. I hope you learned your lesson. You better never lie to your father again. It’s just us, you and Daddy. Like I’ve always told you, we rode the dragon’s breath to get here, and Daddy’s going to make sure you have everything in life.”

I feel myself exhale for the first time all week. Jesus. Thank god he’s back. I muster a smile through beady eyes. Six more months and you’re out of here.

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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.

1992: Nine Cop Cars and An Ax in a Pear Tree

My mother locks herself in my parent’s bedroom.

Annoyed, Dad asks, “Jenny, is your mother still up there?”

I nod, “yes.”

“Well, go and see if you can get her to stop this silly nonsense!”

I knock on the hollow wood-composite door. No answer. I jiggle the brass knob. Locked. What is she doing in there? I would never get away with this.

 Innocently, I plead through the door, “Mom, it’s me. Are you going to come out soon? Dad wants to talk to you. Please.”

Still, no answer. But I hear her talking in a low voice. She’s on the phone?

When I come down the stairs empty-handed, Dad barrels his way right up. He pounds on the door. How is it that his fist doesn’t plow right through?

 His face glows a dark crimson while he yells, “Debbie! Get your goddamn ass out of the bedroom this instant! Or I am going to get my ax and hack you the fuck up.”

Recognizing his tone, my organs quiver inside as if he’s said this to me.

 Still she says nothing. I wish for a magic fairy to sweep her away so she doesn’t have to confront my father. I can’t bear to watch this.

 Disgusted, he turns to me, “I don’t know what the fuck her problem is! Come on and help Daddy with the dishes, would ya?”

He washes. I dry. I hate drying because the kitchen towel smells of twenty spices that Dad uses to make his famous dirt-dog sauce. Like cumin. Yuck.

With his hands submerged in soapy water, dad looks back toward the living room windows.

“Jenny, do you see lights flashing right outside our apartment?”

I shrug. Since you always keep the blinds shut, I’d need x-ray vision to see out there.

 It’s nagging him so he walks to the window and lifts one plastic panel from the venetian blinds in order to peer out. He looks up startled and motions for me to come over.

Whispering audibly, “Jenny! Son-of-a-bitch! There’s about nine cop cars outside our apartment. What the hell is going on?”

Dad opens the door reflexively. As complex manager, he’s usually aware of what’s going on.

As he unbolts the door, two officers approach.

They ask, “Is there a Deborah living here?”

Dad replies confidently, “Well, yes. She’s my wife.”

“Yes, sir. We’ve come because your wife’s sister called us about a domestic violence dispute. She said that you threatened to chop Deborah up with an ax.”

I peer from just behind Dad as they say all this. Holy shit. Are they going to arrest him?

Dad doesn’t panic. Instead, he bursts out laughing.

Suddenly composed, he continues, “Oh Lordy, Officers. She tricked you too! I’ve never touched that woman in my life. This is what she does.”

Pointing to his temple, Dad remarks, “She’s got a few screws loose, if you know what I mean?”

“Well, nevertheless, Mr. K, when someone calls us with this type of threat, we have to come and safely escort that person off the premises.”

“Sure thing Officer. If Debbie wants to leave, she could have just left.” Directing his gaze toward me, Dad proclaims, “This is our daughter, Jenny. I’ve raised her since she was four days old because Deborah ran off then too.”

The officers look stunned, but still skeptical.

Dad directs them with an arm wave, “My wife is upstairs. My daughter and I were just here wondering why she wouldn’t come out of her bedroom. You don’t know Deborah. She always has a plan up her sleeve. Don’t be surprised if she’s back here in week.”

Just then, Aunt Diane and her fiancé Bo walk through the door. This is actually messed up. Diane rescues her sister when she usually spends hours talking shit about my mother over lunch with Dad.

 Dad chuckles as he directs his gaze toward Diane with a smug grin. “Di you know as well as I do that she’s making this up because she wants an excuse to leave.”

Aunt Diane replies, “I don’t know this time, Tommy.”

Now Dad smirks in Bo’s direction, “Well Bo, it looks like you’re stuck with both these crazy bitches. I don’t envy you, brother.”

After the cops escort my mother away, I expect Dad to be livid. Instead he acts as though nothing has transpired.

“Ahhh, your Father’s glad she’s gone. Now I can do what I want without all the bullshit nagging. Tommy-this and Tommy-that.”

He continues, “Jenny, don’t ever nag a man that way someday. Your mother is lucky she never got herself killed because of her mouth. You hear me? If you don’t like something or don’t want to do something, just say no. Don’t give a man a hundred reasons why and keep repeating yourself.”

I file his advice away in my mind even though I detest it.

A week later, I walk out from school right at 2:15pm on the dot. If I don’t, Dad worries. As I approach the light grey Oldsmobile, I nearly faint.

My mother is in the passenger seat. She rolls down the window. “Jenny Penny. Get in the back, my love.”

Holy fuck. They don’t teach us how to cope with this is catechism class.

As we drive down Cooper Street, the same police officer that came to escort my mother the week before, passes us on the opposite side. Even from my back-seat view, the officer’s mouth drops to the floor as he recognizes my parents.

Without missing a beat, Dad turns to Mom and says, “Boy, Deb, did you see the look on his face!?”

They both laugh in unison. It’s one of the sweetest moments they’ve ever had together.

1994: Magically Appearing Cars

 

Dad’s on a mission today. “Jenny, come on, I want you to get dressed nice like you’re going to church. Daddy’s got an idea to get us a car.”

We have a car now, but it needs a new engine mount and it has no reverse. So Daddy says, “it’s cheaper to just get a ‘new’ one.”

“There’s an old woman that lives in that little house around the corner from us. I’m pretty sure her husband kicked the bucket because the car hasn’t moved all winter. She probably can’t drive anymore. So let’s see if she wants to sell her car to someone in need. Don’t forget what Daddy always taught you. Our business is our business.”

No your business is your business. I don’t want any part of it. Such a good Samaritan! Always there at precisely the right moment to help an old lady in need. God this is how we got our last four cars. Why can’t we just go to the dealership like a normal family. Oh yeah, we tried that once. Only because my Mother made you do it! And they repossessed the car four months after she moved out—“couldn’t afford it without your mother’s help”—Bullshit! Always someone to blame! Always someone to manipulate!

 We arrive at the door. I have never met the woman who lives here. He knocks. It takes a few minutes for her to answer. She looks alarmed, but then she catches my eye. She asks, “Can I help you?” behind her screen door.

“Hi my name is Tom. I’m your neighbor…live right across the street from you. This is my daughter Jenny. I work for the church and help a lot of the needy people in our area. I would like to talk to you about your car.”

She half smiles in a perplexed way, but invites us to come in.

He makes small talk with her and tells her more about his “credentials.”

The he says, “Well, Mrs. Smith, I came here today because I noticed you haven’t moved your car all winter.”

Mrs. Smith hesitantly replies, “Ye-e-s, well, I have a bad hip and I can’t drive anymore. My husband passed away last year. So my son is going to come and take the car out of my driveway anytime now.”

This is ridiculous. I can’t even believe he figured this out. I can’t believe I am just standing here and listening to this. I am willing myself to magically disappear, but they continue to talk despite me.

My father explains to the elderly woman, “Well, as I was telling you, my daughter Jenny and I work with the needy. And as it happens, there is a woman in the complex where I live. She’s a single mother. Husband left her alone with a newborn. He was abusive. Bad situation. Anyway, she’s in dire straits and really needs a car. I am hoping you’ll consider selling yours to help that poor woman out.”

No! That did not just happen. I guess that’s why you told me about “our business”—the thing you say when you want to tell a lie and have me keep my mouth shut. I knew you were going to come over here and manipulate her, but I figured you would tell her that we needed the car. And not on the first visit! At least that’s how you’ve done it the past. Not taking any chances this time apparently. Son-of-a-bitch!

Mrs. Smith remains uncertain, but says, “W-e-l-l, okay. But I should call my son about that—–

He interrupts her, “Oh of course, of course, it’s just that she needs something as quickly as possible. She just got a job. And she can’t manage the baby and the job with no car. That poor woman. I was hoping to be able to help her out here.”

Not going so well is it? There’s always a pesky son or friend. Don’t do it Mrs. Smith! Don’t fall for it. Or just hurry up and give him the car. Another car I will be teased about. Oh well, at least it’s not an old cab this time.

 Mrs. Smith wants to return to her afternoon tea. “Uh, how much would I sell it to her for? I’m not even sure if the car is running. My husband always took care of that.”

Dad assures her, “Don’t even worry about that. I know a great mechanic that will do the work for very little. The best thing is to sign the car over to me today for $100—that way motor vehicle doesn’t tax it as a gift—and I then I will repair the car and have it to her in no time. God bless you. You are a good woman to help out in this way. I can be back in an hour with the paperwork from the DMV”

She looks stunned. I’m stunned. This story doesn’t even add up. Why would she sign the car over to him? Why wouldn’t she get to meet the woman? What if she sees us driving the car later… because she can see our driveway from her living room window!

 But despite Mrs. Smith’s, and my, confusion, Dad makes good on his promise to get us a new used-car that day.

The old cement-grey Plymouth starts right up. As usual, I brace myself for the dust cloud that will inevitably blow out of the vents. After it idles for a minute, Dad wastes no time moving the car from its former driveway into our gravelly parking space at the complex.