1989: Catholic Charity

My white patent leather Mary Jane’s clip clop as I dash down the marble steps. Each dazzling granite speck stirs me to sing a Christmas jingle. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…just like the ones I used to know…well you’ve never actually known any, but it’s still a good song.

Christmas vacation. Let’s hope the landlord doesn’t kick us out for not paying rent, again.

Last week, I pretended to play with my Barbie dolls while Mr. Loomis, the motel owner, yelled at Dad. “Sir, you need to pay your rent, or I am going to call the police.” Dad pleaded, “Please, Mr. Loomis, I have a daughter. It’s winter. I’ll have that money to you next week—I promise—just as soon as my next unemployment check comes. I’m waiting for a big settlement from the government, too.” Mr. Loomis’s grumble rings in my ears.

Dad told a lie because the unemployment checks dried up two months ago. Mr. Loomis will be back, just like the Terminator.

I spy Dad standing at the main door, right under the saintly carved archway. He beams with pride. “You ready, Daddy’s little girl? No school for ten whole days!” I smile but I’ll miss the place. I glance back at the Great Hall one last time. Ten days is a long time not to see your teachers. What if Dad just sleeps the whole time?

Before I turn back around to face him, Mrs. Henshack runs towards us with a box. Struggling for breath, she bellows, “Mr. K…so glad to have caught you!” Dad grips my hand tighter. Ouch. What’s did I do?

Mrs. Henshack lowers her voice to a whisper, “Mr. K. some folks in the church community put a few gifts together for you and Jenny.”

Dad’s grip tightens. I squirm my fingers loose. “Thank you, Mrs. Henshack, but Jenny and I don’t need the charity.” She gives him a confused wide-eyed look. I scream, yes, we do need the charity! We’ve never had a Christmas before.

 Mrs. Henshack extends the box toward Dad. “Don’t worry, Mr. K. there’s no shame in taking a gift from the Lord.” Dad takes the box sheepishly and says thank you while making a run for it.

He clomps hastily without making eye contact with anyone. Hey, Joe and Moira’s mom just waved to us. I wave back, timidly, hoping he won’t clobber me when we make it to the red and white Malibu.

Will we have to throw this box out on the Northway like we did with Madeline’s knickers?

“See, Jenny, your Father hates this shit! I’m not raising you to take charity. It’s not because we’re better than anyone else. I just want you to have respect for yourself and I don’t want anyone feeling sorry for us, either.” But I feel sorry for us. Please let us be able to keep the gifts.

As he shuts the back door Dad says, “I’ll probably just throw all this shit in the dumpster when we get back to the motel.” My eyes well up. They were so kind to us. Why can’t we just have one thing?

 We pull in the lot in front of our door, 12B. The brass numbers shimmer against the orange door in the late afternoon sun. 12B. Your prison cell for 10 whole days. And we could have had gifts this time.

 I turn my head away as Dad opens the back door. I can’t bear to watch him carry the box to the trash. “Ahhh, shit, Jenny! I guess they got us all this crap. You and Daddy can at least see what it is. And if there’s any good stuff. But Daddy decides what stays and goes. You hear me?”

I nod profusely while fighting back tears. Will you ever understand him?

Sitting cross-legged on the brown and orange shag rug, I wait while Dad slices the box open.

A winter sweater for Dad. “You know your Father doesn’t wear sweaters, so that’s going bye-bye. Would have been okay when I was skinny and young…”

A decorative tin of butter cookies. “Now that’s what Daddy’s talking about. He rips through the plastic seal and grabs a round wreath shaped cookie. “Yummy. Here, take one.” I pick the brown and white tic-tac-toe square.

A squishy wrapped gift with a red bow. Oh can I open it, please? I’ve never opened a wrapped present before. Dad hands the package to me. I carefully peel all the tape off. “Jesus, Jenny! Open that, today. The cookies are getting stale.”

I tear through the last bit to reveal a bear. A Snuggle bear. No wait he’s a puppet! I wait for Dad’s approval before inserting my hand through the slot. He looks it over to make sure the bear is new. He has his tags. No odor. My very own fuzzy puppet. This is the best Christmas ever.

“Alright, I guess you can keep the puppet, and we can eat these cookies. The rest of this shit is garbage. You know when Daddy was growing up; we never had Christmas, either. It’s kind of hard when there are sixteen kids. We were lucky to get a coloring book and crayons some years. Cold lettuce and salt for dinner most of the time…”

Snuggles and I hear Dad, but we don’t care.

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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.

1997: Good Samaritans

“Jenny, I’m going to rest for a few minutes.”

Finally. Now you can get some homework done.

I call back, “Okay, Dad. I’m just going to work on my math assignment.”

I settle down at the kitchen table and open my notebook. Honestly, Course III started off as my least favorite class this year. I like math, but my teacher is really stern.

She’s stricter than the nuns at Catholic school. And you’re such a pussy. You were afraid she wouldn’t give you an A and he would kill you.

 But so far, I got it wrong. This is my best math course since 6th grade.

Just as I start setting up the word problem, I hear “knock, knock.” I jump at the sound and my heart is pounding. Jenny, you don’t ever answer the fucking door unless you know who it is. Do you understand Daddy? Ask your brother and sisters what happened to them when I tricked them and they answered the door when they shouldn’t have! You just can’t trust anybody. Too many psychos out there. You see the news everyday just like Daddy.

 I wince at the memory of Dad’s “secret knock.”

Just go to the door and look through the peephole.

 But I don’t see anyone. Wait! A little girl is standing there. I forget about Dad and open the door softly.

She gazes down, her blonde hair falling softly across her cheeks. I see myself in her at that age. Maybe 9 or 10. Shy. Who is she?

 “Can I help you honey?”

She stammers reluctantly, “Ummm, I heard there is a man who lives here who helps people.” She corrects herself, “That the people who live here help people.”

My eyes widen. My mouth drops open. Of course we’ll help.

 I assure her, “Okay, come in and wait here. Let me get my dad.” You’re so overwhelmed you forgot to ask her name.

I bolt up the stairs so Dad doesn’t startle when I call out. I try not to let him see my eyes well up as I tell him, “A little girl is downstairs. She told me that she heard from someone that ‘the people who live here help people.’”

“You have to come right a–” He hinges automatically upright before I can finish.

I observe Dad in his element. He has a purpose again. A mission. He introduces himself and quizzes the girl. “Hi, I’m Tom. Everyone calls me Uncle Tom, though.” He points to me, “And this is my daughter, Jenny. Tell me what happened honey, and I’ll see if I can help.”

She looks relieved. “My daddy lost his job last month and we don’t have any food.”

Dad doesn’t question her further, except to find out where she lives. She points out the window, “The apartments across the street. Unit 12F.” Excitedly, he responds, “Be careful walking back home and tell your parents that we will be there within the hour.”

As soon as she leaves, Dad says, “Jenny get me that huge box out of the water heater closet.” I work my way past the enormous roll of herbed contact paper, and fetch the corrugated container. I stand at attention waiting to receive further instructions.

But Dad has already crawled onto the counter so he can reach the highest cabinets above the stove and fridge. In a flash he hands me the paltry contents of our cupboards to load into the box. Two cans of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, four packs of dehydrated Ramen noodles, a box of Bisquick, a jar of peanut butter, and a package Little Debbie choc-o-rounds. Our food for the next two weeks until Dad gets his disability check.

“Aghh, Jenny. We don’t need this food. You and Daddy, we’ll be fine. Did you see the look on that little girl’s face?”

Now we have no food. I crumble inside as I see him hand me the last item. But I’m not surprised. I want to help her too. But I’m scared for us. Well at least you can mope in peace for five minutes while he delivers this box across the road.

 Instead he orders, “Come on! Get your shoes on,” while hoisting the large box up on one shoulder. “We have to go fill this baby to the top.”

Dad makes his way over to our neighbors units. One by one, we knock on doors. He tells people that a neighborhood family is in trouble. They are starving. I’m amazed. Can by can, package by package, the box overflows with generosity.