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?

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1987: The Babysitter

Dad throws a hundred pound bag of flour over one shoulder. He carries it from the stock room to the gigantic floor mixer in the kitchen.

The mixer is painted steel grey. The silver bowl is large enough for me to fit inside. I watch the paddle spin round over and over. When the dough reaches the perfect consistency, Dad trades the paddle for a giant hook.

A little more flour, then some water.

I fidget with my hands because I have a big secret. Good girls don’t keep secrets. But what if Daddy gets mad at you?

“Daddy I have to tell you a story, but I don’t want you to get mad.”

“What is it, baby girl? You can tell your Father anything.”

I hesitate. Oh no! Now you have to tell him. Be brave.

I stammer at first, “Well, I think someone might have tried to do something bad. Like something you taught me about.”

“What do you mean something bad? Something bad to you?”

He looks straight at me now while the dough spins out of control—gumming up the paddle.

I continue, “Umm do you remember my babysitter at the lake?”

“Yeah of course! I met them through the motel when we lived there that one winter.”

“Umm, well one time when the husband was home, I had to go to the bathroom. But when I walked in, he was already there going pee. I got really scared and said ‘I’m sorry.’ I turned around to leave, but he said ‘wait!’”

Dad’s face grows hot. “That son of a bitch. This better not be the kind of story I think it is. I’ll kill the son of a bitch.”

Oh no. You shouldn’t have told him. What if the cops come again like they did last month at the Laundromat?

 “No Dad, it’s not really bad.”

“So what happened, then?”

I point down with my index finger, “Well, he told me to come and feel his pee pee down there.”

“That’s it! I’ll fucking kill that motherfucker!”

“No, Dad. Wait! Nothing happened. I just ran out of the bathroom with my head down.”

“Jenny, my God, that was almost two years ago! Why didn’t you tell Daddy before now?”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I was scared. I knew how mad you would be.”

“Well I’m not mad at you. But you’re a very strange child. Telling your Father about this so late. What if he tried to hurt you? No more of these crazy babysitters ever again! Never ever trust anybody—like you Father always tells you. And I fucking disregarded my own rule!”

Dad finishes attending to the dough quietly—adding more water to correct the earlier mistake. Then his voice softens, “I guess in a way, you saved your Father, Jenny. If you told me that story two years ago, he would be dead, and I’d be in jail now. You did the right thing to leave, but I want you to come to Daddy right away from now on. You can always talk to me about anything.”

I nod to promise, but I know better.

1989: Superhero Crush

I nestle into the prickly orangey-brown tweed couch to watch Superman. Too itchy.

 Dad’s snores drift from the bedroom, so I plop down on the floor, instead. Legs crossed into a pretzel. You can hear better this way.

 This next part, I know by heart. Lois sits on her balcony. Superman soars in. Love.

Mesmerized, my eyes follow the sweeping motion of Lois’s sheer white gown in the night breeze. She’s an angel. A smart one. Will you be a pretty reporter when you grow up?

 Except for the smoking part. Because that’s bad for you.

 Superman checks her lungs with his x-ray vision. Pheww she’s okay. He cares about her the way someone is supposed to care about you. When you grow up, you’re going to marry Superman.

 I blink and blush at the love scenes. Hurry. Uncomfortable.

After Superman flies off, I can tell Lois misses him. She’s stuck with Clark, now. No, Lois! Can’t you see that Clark’s the one who really loves you? They’re the same person!

 I love you, Clark, and I promise that I’ll be nice to you someday. If I ever find you.

 The bed creaks as Dad jolts awake. I wipe a single tear that has fallen onto my cheek before he can see it. Close call.

 When the theme song plays at the end, Dad picks me up and holds me high over his head. He flies me around our hotel room. I sweep my arms out wide. Just like Lois Lane.

1985: Poor Man’s Steak

 

I spy an angry woman behind us in line at the Grand Union. I turn away as her eyes meet mine.

Dad busily chats with the cashier. “Honey, my name is Tom, but you can call me Uncle Tom.”

Dad wraps his arm around my shoulder; “I know you see me in here every week with my daughter.”

The curly-blonde cashier stares at Dad while she holds his change in her outstretched hand.

“Anyway, I’m a psychic. I’ve wanted to tell you this for two weeks, but I didn’t want to scare you.”

Her eyes widen. We both wait impatiently for Dad’s premonition.

He continues, “It’s about your boyfriend. He’s cheating on you.”

The cashier starts to tear up. Dad tries to comfort her. “Don’t ask me how I know these things, but I just do. Don’t worry, honey. You’ll find someone much better. Mark my words. You’ll be married within a few years, and you’ll have two sons.”

I glance back. The customer behind us walks to another clerk. Hurry up, Dad.

While Dad leaves the clerk, sniffling, we walk toward the double set of automatic doors.Today, he asks me, “Jenny. What’s your favorite number?”

“That’s easy Daddy. It’s three and four.”

“Hey that sounds like a great late double.”

“There’s something else I want to tell you Dad.”

“What is it?”

“Someday, I’m going to own one of those fast bikes I saw on T.V.”

“You mean a motorcycle?”

I nod. Yes a motorcycle.

 Dad makes a vroom vroom sound.

“What a strange child you are. What five year old tells their father they want a motorcycle one day?”

I shrug my shoulders as he pulls our hotel room key from his pocket. The oval key tag is made of orange plastic with a braid around the edge. The golden number, 23 catches my eye even in the dark hallway.Dad doesn’t usually cook, because we only have a kitchenette with what he calls, “a piece of shit stove.”

 But today, Grand Union had his favorite meat on sale.

I watch as Dad heats the pan, vigorously swirling the butter in the bottom. “See Jenny, I want you to pay attention to Poppa. This is the mark of a first class chef. I’m the only human being I know that can sauté chicken livers to taste like filet mignon.”

I’ve never had filet mignon but it must be really gross. Why would anyone want to eat that?

 The liver meat expands as Dad slices through the plastic wrap, cutting the price sticker in half, 49 cents. Eeek! The smell. Don’t breathe. Don’t look.

 “You see this, baby girl? The butter has to brown first like this. Gives the meat a nutty flavor. And the heat has to be very high so you can flash this in the pan so quick. Yummy! Pretty soon you and Poppa are going to have this delicious, first class meal.”

As the livers hit the pan, they sizzle. The steam rising from the pan turns my stomach immediately.

I stab the spongy meat and lift it toward my mouth while holding my breath. Spit it out! Posion! No wait, he will kill you.

“This is why Daddy loves you. Because you eat my delicious chicken livers, and you gobble them up! Daddy’s been feeding you these ever since you were a baby, you know.”

I fit as many pieces in my mouth as I can without swallowing. Then I excuse myself to use the bathroom, promptly spitting them into the toilet. And flush!

It’s better to be hungry tonight than eat these. It’s ok. Tomorrow we’ll be back to pepperoni and soda.

1987: Night Terrors

It’s 10:00 pm. I put my Barbie’s to bed for the night, and kneel by my bed to say my prayers.

Dear God,

Please help all the little kids in the world who have less than I do, you know the ones who are starving or really sick—the ones I’ve seen on T.V. Thank you, God, for hearing my prayers each night.

After prayer time, I saunter into the living room on my wooden scooter wearing an oversized green “Luck of the Irish, Guinness” t-shirt.

“Jenny, come sit next to Poppa. You’re just in time. A really good movie is about to start.”

I join him on the basket-weave brown and orange sofa.

The movie is called “A Nightmare on Elm Street”

“Jenny, you’re really going to like this movie. It’s Freddy Cougar. Lots of hacked-up killing and good shit in this movie. Daddy knows you have school in the morning, but our deal is still the same. You stay up as late as you want. So long as you never complain about getting up first thing in the morning. I think that’s a good deal, don’t you?”

I nod, as razor sharp claws emerge on the screen.

 

 

1987: Nail-Biter

“Jenny! Jenny! Jenny! Look at your gorgeous, beautiful nails. Bit to fucking shit. What did Daddy tell you about being a young lady? You need long nails in case you ever have to hurt someone. They are your only protection. You can gouge someone’s eyes right out with long nails. Just look at yours now. Shaking his head in disgust he says, “Never, ever again.”

Why can’t my nails to grow back instantly? Why do I bite them so much? Why am I so nervous? Why can’t I stop?

 “You leave Daddy no choice. Come on. I’m going to buy that poison they put on bad children’s hands. That will stop your ass. Let me tell you, if you bite your nails with that shit on, you’ll know it. Teach you a lesson.”

I beg, “No, please. I promise never to bite them again. Just give me one more chance.”

His eyes grow cold. “You’ve had more goddamn chances than you deserve. Too late! We’re getting the poison. And I better not see any fucking tears!”

I wish I still had my nails to dig in my skin.

We arrive at the pharmacy downtown. He approaches the clerk.

“Ma’am I’m looking for a bitter poison to put on my daughter’s hands.”

The clerk looks back at him, startled. “S—ir, I’m sorry we don’t sell anything like that.”

He shoots me a glare. Now we have to look for the poison somewhere else?

But Dad distracts himself by browsing for a few minutes. I wonder what it would be like if the cashier was your mom? She seems nice.

He grabs some candy bars. Again, bothering the cashier, “You know when I was a kid, these candy bars were only a nickel and they were three times the size.” He holds up his hands to approximate the size of the former candy bars. “You wouldn’t believe how good they were too. They used real chocolate back then.”

As we walk out, the little bell jingles above the door. Oh I hope we don’t keep looking for the poison. I hope he won’t be even angrier that he couldn’t find it. Maybe he will just cut my fingers off.

I smell the mint as Dad chunks into a peppermint patty. Between chews, he tells me, “Looks like you got lucky this time. But it better never happen again. Don’t forget the lessons Daddy is teaching you. Daddy has a reason for everything that I do. I know. I’m a bastard, but someday it will save your life.”

1988: “Takin’ What They’re Givin’”

I wait in line at 2:15 pm near the double doors. Dad always arrives early to pick me up. His car will be first in line, behind the last school bus.

When we get back to the apartment, I will do my homework and then practice riding my wooden scooter. My mother gave it to me. A hand-me-down from my older sister. I’m not afraid of going fast anymore, either.

Instead, Dad says, “Good, you’re out right on time today. Poppa got us a job, starting right now. Remember that rich woman and her husband who own the antique store downtown?”

I nod.

“Yes, well, you know your Father. I always find work somehow. Anyway, her daughter, Jan, owns a giant house, and I guess they need someone to clean for them. The place is probably filthy so Daddy’s going to need your help. I’ll teach you to clean like the drill instructors taught me in the military.”

But, but, wait, I have homework to do. And I’m scared to clean a stranger’s house. What if I do it wrong? Will you hit me like last week when I didn’t know how to fight with a samurai sword?

 After Dad drives a few blocks, I’m lost. “Daddy, where are we?”

He chuckles a little, “Oh, this is where the rich live, my child!”

Jan’s house stands in the middle of a cul-de-sac. How many mansions are there on this one circle-shaped street?

But Jan’s sticks out because it’s pink. A pink castle. If Barbie were real, then she would live here.

 No one is home, but dad already knows how to open the door through the garage. I scan the concrete ground with apprehension and wonder. So this is what a garage looks like inside? It’s bigger than our apartment.

 Once we’re inside, Dad surveys the task. Why are we here by ourselves? Why would these people let strangers in their house? Everything is so pretty. I scan the room noticing, couches, chairs, curtains, rugs, and beds with flowery pillows. How did they get all this stuff? I want to be rich when I am grown up too.

 I hear Dad cursing, “Goddamn, mother fucker. It’s going to be a real bitch to clean this one bathroom alone. This is what the filthy rich do. They don’t appreciate what they have. They let everything go to pot.”

He finishes his tirade with a brag, “Well, I guess that’s why they hired me—because your father is the best! Nothing beats me ever! I can’t wait to see their faces when they see this grime turned to sparkle. Now I just have to find an old toothbrush under the sink.”

Now he turns to me, “Daddy will start on the tiles while you clean the sink.” He shows me how to scrub the sink with the Bon Ami and a cloth. “And don’t forget, you remember where everything is. And put it back exactly as you found it—just like Dad taught you to do at home.”

I shudder while burning the contents of the vanity into my brain. Toothbrush holder on right side, soap dish on left side. After I get the hang of things, I mostly forget about my homework due tomorrow.

Just as we are finishing the kitchen, the owner comes home. She’s very tall. Not like a Barbie, but she has pretty blonde hair and pink skin. Jan and Dad talk while he shows her around. I hear her squeals as he reveals his accomplishments.

I glance at the clock on the stove. 6:00 pm. Oh no! It’s late. I really need to go home and work on my school assignments for tomorrow. Please let them finish talking soon.

But when Dad and Jan return to the kitchen, he has a grin from ear to ear. I know this look means something is happening. “Jenny, Jan just invited Daddy and you to cater dinner here for her and her fiancé tonight. Isn’t that great news?” No. No. We did our job. He said cleaning. Why are we cooking now? He offered! You know he offered!

 Through blood-filled eardrums, I hear Dad mutter something about how, “Jenny is really great in the kitchen helping her pops. I used to own my own catering business before Jenny was born, you know. Just getting started back up. It’s been difficult raising her on my own.”

Jan responds with the usual, “Oh we’re so happy to have found you. This is perfect for us. Someone we can trust to clean our house and cook delicious meals for us. And Jenny is just darling. We would love to keep her here, my fiancé and I.”

While Jan is upstairs, Dad cracks open a beer from the their fridge. “You did good work today, poppa’s little girl. Daddy is teaching you an important lesson. You never turn down work. And I’m glad you helped me today because all of this money that we earn—it’s all to keep you alive. It’s not for Poppa.”

I stare at him blankly. None of my other classmates work. We’re only seven years old.

 He pours a bit of the beer into a small paper cup, and slides it toward me. “Go ahead. Try some.”

Now I look more confused. Isn’t that for adults?

 He nudges me, “Oh don’t worry. That little bit won’t hurt you. Daddy would never do anything to hurt you.”

The first sip is sour. Ugh gross. Why would people drink this? But the second one is better. I secretly wish he would pour just a little more in the cup.

On cue, he does. “Jesus, Dad just realized that you haven’t eaten anything all day! That’s my girl. You never complain.”

We snack on a few things as Dad whips up a gourmet dinner. He gives me my usual task of chopping lettuce with the big butcher knife.

Later, while Jan and Rob enjoy dinner, and dad enjoys their compliments, I’m permitted to watch T.V. on their couch.

I flip through the channels until a catchy tune takes my breath away. “There’s something strange in the neighborhood…Who you gonna call—Ghostbusters!” I glue myself to the screen until Dad says it’s time to go home. I’m thankful Jan takes an extra five minutes to write Dad’s check so that I don’t miss the last scene.

I love the Ghostbusters. And I love this house. And I love Jan. I want to live here with her and Rob. She said I could!