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!”

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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.

1987: Retirement Home

The bus stop drops us off a short walk from the retirement home.

While Dad surveys the parking lot, December’s wind punctures through my pink ballerina flats. I wriggle my Popsicle toes, hoping they won’t snap off. Ouch. Why can’t we just go inside? I turn toward the door and consider making a run for it, but I know Dad will backhand me.

He eyes my shivering legs. “Jenny. Poppa knows it’s cold out here. But I wanted to take a look around this parking lot. These old ladies have all these beautiful cars.” He stops to peer in the driver’s side window of a light blue sedan. Buick. “And your Father bets ninety percent of these old hags don’t drive them anymore. Why couldn’t I be lucky enough to find me a rich old wife?”

I picture my new mother—a hunched woman with curly silvery hair. I shake my head left to right—right to left. I already have a mom. Except that she lives really far away. And Dad says that she might try to kidnap me someday.

The elevator ride up to the fifth floor partially thaws my limbs. In the long hallway, I notice a woman wheeling a metal cart filled with round silver discs. Flying saucers? Why do old people need those?

After the woman passes, Dad leans over and whispers in my ear, “Meals on Wheels. That’s a good service because a lot of these people can’t cook for themselves, but your Father is sure the food is horrible.” Dad knows because he’s a chef.

Dad uses his secret knock—Dun da dun dun…Dun dun—when we reach 5B.

“Rose. Hello! Just Tom and my daughter, Jenny, again. Madeline’s friends.”

Rose ushers us in. I immediately notice the same musty odor from our first visit. Dad called it, old people smell. Said he’d never live in a place like this. He’d go off into the woods like a real man when it was time for him to go.

As I return from my blank stare, Dad stands in Rose’s kitchen, feverishly chopping ingredients. He calls over his shoulder, “Jenny, why don’t you ask Rose what you can do to help?”

She instructs me to set the table pointing to the silverware drawer with her bony finger. I arrange the forks, knives and spoons on three napkins and set the scalloped plates in the center. The small painted flowers run alongside the golden rim. I trace the pattern over and over in my mind.

Dad requests, “Rose, I’m wondering if you have anything that might help me chop these nuts faster?” She looks at him quizzically. He offers, “If you don’t mind, I could just take a look through your cupboards and see what you might have.”

She nods, “That will be okay, Tom.”

Dad opens all the cabinets on top first. Nothing. He kneels, leaning forward, to reach all the way back into the lower corner cupboard. His eyes grow wide like a leprechaun who struck a pot of gold.

“Rose, this is a first class food processor. Did you know that you had this back in this cupboard?”

I watch as Dad pulls out all the bits. He takes a careful look at the shiny blades and grins.

She narrows her eyes slightly to focus on the bulky contraption. “Yes, Tom. You may use that. I’m afraid of it, actually. My son and daughter-in-law bought that for me one Christmas, but it’s too powerful.”

Dad grins again. “Oh, that’s really too bad, Rose. I mean this is a professional machine. I bet they paid a couple hundred for it. If you’d like, I can show you how to use it.”

Rose takes three steps back from the counter. “No thank you. It’s not something I really need. I don’t know why they bought that for me, come to think of it.”

She pauses, watching while Dad pushes stalks of celery through the plastic chimney. “You know what, Tom… you should take that food processor as a gift from me.”

He looks up at Rose through the top of his eyes. “Oh, I couldn’t take this from you.”

“No. Go ahead. Really. It’s almost Christmas, and besides, I really appreciate you coming over here to help me out. I’m glad Madeline introduced us. Oh, and why don’t you take that electric juicer I saw you use last week, too?”

Dad goes silent for a moment. We wait for his utterance.

“Thank you, Rose. God bless you! I’ll take great care of them both. They won’t go to waste.”

Is he supposed to take gifts? Godmother Madeline told Dad last week you’re not supposed to get thanks for community service…

I stand at the sink, drying what he washes with a strawberry embossed hand towel when I hear Rose shriek from behind.

“No! No! No! This is not how you set a table. The spoons go on the outside like this! Who taught this child how to set a table?”

Dad and I spin around to a tight-lipped Rose, stooped over each place setting, rearranging silverware. She shakes her head. Dad’s face becomes red while speaking out in defense, “Actually, Rose, she’s never—

He stops mid-thought. And gives me a certain look. The one I know means that it’s right to obey Rose—no matter how silly her request—because this is her house. And the food processor. Rules. Order.

“I apologize, Rose. I guess Jenny should know better as the daughter of a chef, but she’s not even seven years old yet, so I guess we should giver her a break.” She doesn’t seem moved. Instead she points at all the silverware while moving her hands back and forth. I wonder why he doesn’t give you a break? Like last week when he lost his keys and he blamed you?

I wait for Rose to deliver each stern gesture. I try to record the specific order in my mind. But it doesn’t make sense. Who cares where they go? Instead I count the petals on each of the tiny hand-painted pink flowers. Seven. Plus seven. Equals fourteen. Pay attention to the knife, stupid. Rose was very upset about the knife. What did she say again? I quiver in fear. Don’t talk back to elders. Except bad people.

When we finish dinner, Rose offers some us some chamomile tea.

Dad says we’d best be off to catch the bus back home. Rose protests, “Oh, I was hoping that you and Jenny could stay and watch my favorite show with me.”

He agrees, reluctantly, observing the bag of kitchen thingamajigs near the door.

Rose sits in a small pink reclining chair while Dad and I sit on the couch. He picks at his thumbs, impatiently, while we wait for the show to begin. Thank you for being a friend. Traveled down the road and back again. Your heart is true…

The Golden Girls. The eldest looks like Rose. I can see why she likes this show so much.

Bored at first, I begin to bite my thumbnail. Stop. You don’t want him to try and get the poison again.

By the end, I secretly grow to like the show. I glance at Dad’s profile in the flickering screen light after the group hug. He winces.

Before the end credits finish, Dad rises from the sofa. “That was—uh—real nice, Rose.”

“Oh isn’t it just the most wonderful show?”

“Well, actually, it’s a little mushy for me. I like more action movies—myself—but I guess it was okay. Everything except that stupid group hug.”

Rose laughs.

She made him do something he didn’t want to. And got away with it. Like Madeline and her rainbows.

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.