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?

1991: A Glorious Summer

Dad and I rumble up to the First National bank in the red and white Chevy Malibu.

“Jenny, the bastards owed you and Daddy this ten-thousand. It’s retroactive, you know. Poppa will never forget the look on the judge’s face when I took my shirt off right in court to show him these bumps all over my body.”

Glad that I was in school that day.

 “That judge said to your Father, ‘Mr. K, I’m granting you your social security disability because I can see that you’re not fit to work.’”

Not because of the bumps, though!

“And that’s what Daddy’s trying to teach you. Never say you can’t. And never ever give up!”

After we open a checking account and get a wad of cash, Dad heads to the apartment complex where we were supposed to live with my mom.

Dad phones the rental office, “Hi, this is Tom. I called about moving to a two-bedroom apartment with my wife. Well, she left, so I’ll only need the one-bedroom now.”

We pick up the apartment keys at the construction office near the airport. Dad enjoys flipping off some crisp hundred-dollar bills for the apartment manager. $700.

“Well, Poppa’s little girl. Looks like we’re going to need some furniture. Better go blow some of this cash. Then, maybe Daddy will still have time to bet the late double.”

Furniture? Oh yeah! We’ve never owned that before.

When Dad pulls into the most expensive furniture store in town, I know he feels like celebrating.

We stay for an hour, and spend a couple grand.

“Well Jenny, Pops thinks you did good for your first time picking out furniture. That Broyhill set we bought for your bedroom is excellent quality. You’ll have it for your whole life.”

I have my own bedroom furniture! It even has a matching desk and chair set. This is my favorite part.

Dad, realizing the time, blurts out, “Shit. We haven’t eaten all day. Let’s get our asses to Wendy’s and get four of those 99-cent junior bacon cheeseburgers. Maybe even a milkshake, if you want it. No cheapening ourselves today, Jenny Leigh!”

I pinch myself to see if I’m still alive. It can’t be happening. We’ve never had more than two 99-cent cheeseburgers and a Coke to share.

 I wonder what else is going to change now that we are rich?

 The next week instead of stocking the fridge with frozen mystery meat, dad buys real fruit, and chicken breasts, and lettuce.

We get cable, but not just any cable. HBO. The first night the new couch and entertainment center arrives, we stay up until 2 am watching Pet Cemetery. That night, I’m too scared to sleep.

 Okay, so some things never change.

 The following month, I turn 10. Dad throws me my first birthday party. It’s at East Field, the park across from our new apartment. The theme is Barbie. My friends from school are invited. Even the girls that I don’t like. But that’s only because they’re snobby.

“Jenny, you have to invite everyone because that’s the way Daddy’s raising you. You’re no better than anybody else. You might be raised better than them, and have more respect for yourself. But, I always want you to do what’s right.”

The next day he takes me to a marching band concert in the park. When we get to the gate, they say, “That will be $30 each.”

I see Dad’s eye flicker a bit, but he hands over the $60.

This time I don’t pinch myself. You’re living in a fairy tale. I fully expect Cinderella’s mice to appear and break out in song at any moment.

This is the most fun thing you’ve ever done in your life. And this is the best summer ever.

 I feel like the puppet, Pinocchio, except I was just turned into a real little girl.