St. Petersburg Drive East – a single-story, two-bedroom triplex – located in Oldsmar, occurring in the early months of the year 1991. This setting includes the time I was kidnapped by my father; a missing weed-whacker and diamond ring; and, a broken down, blue two-door Buick Regal.
We moved to St. Petersburg Drive East in early summer. I confidently recall it being summertime because I had graduated fifth grade, and we seamlessly moved to Oldsmar from Town N’ Country before my sixth grade year. That primary K-5 school was the last time I would start and finish the school year at the same place. We moved. A lot. Making friends became easy and losing them became easier.
I was overly anxious and repulsed by middle school. I hadn’t been a member of the youngest class since I was a baby in Kindergarten. I was grown up now. Other people say moving is one of the most stressful times in life and I had experienced it four times by the age of ten. That’s when I started to develop obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I desperately craved control and stability. The show Barney and Friends ran from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. on school days and I made sure to always catch the last 10 minutes of the program when they sing the “I-love-you-you-love-me” song. I know I was eleven years old and should’ve been too old for Barney, a show about pre-schoolers getting their groove on, but I needed the reassurance as a latchkey kid.
My bus stop was a barbecue joint. It was owned by three black brothers who let us loiter inside while we waited for the bus and they filled the smoker with meat. They welcomed us inside every day, but it was especially kind of them on those rare days when Florida drops below sixty degrees.
It was early winter when my stepdad moved in to St. Petersburg Drive East. It was an awkward year as I transitioned from a single classroom with a single teacher to a giant, faraway school that had a one-way hallway. It was the first and last time I ever saw a paper, one-way sign used to route heavy foot traffic. You had to follow the rules or be trampled. The sign should’ve read Walk At Your Own Risk. I eventually made a friend or two, and by December my mom made a friend too. My stepdad James.
James is the brother of my mother’s best friend Linda. If you ask my dad, he will tell you Linda is the reason why my parents are divorced. My dad oversimplifies things, but I believe him when he says that Linda was not a positive influence on their marriage. James was released from a Californian jail that year and he reunited with family in Florida for the holidays. At the time, James had two sisters, five nephews, and two nieces (one girl whom he thought was his niece for 19 years was really his sister), his mother, and his father all living in Brandon. He was released after ten years for bank fraud, making him the perfect suitor for a divorced mother of two young girls. (Thanks, Linda.)
Boy, was my mother happy to have him in her life. She drove back and forth from Oldsmar to Brandon after work and on weekends. It wasn’t long before James’ boots would appear by our front door, and then stay there until I finished the Barney song, turned off the TV and walked to the barbecue joint. I learned to be disturbed by a man (or anyone for that matter) who didn’t work for as long or as hard as I did.
My mother blew up the car engine on the Buick Regal. She ignored the oil light on the dash. The Buick’s death made my dad really sad because he loves cars more than people. My dad was even more sad when he realized he sold it to the junkyard for $500, only to find out six months later than my mother forgot her (their?) diamond wedding ring inside the glove box. It had been at least three years since their divorce and neither of them thought to pawn or sell it. They worked instead.
My mother worked for a wearable metals company in Oldsmar. She was a seamstress and showed up to work Monday through Friday and on time at 8 a.m. After a few years of this routine, I had gotten the hang of coming home after school to an empty apartment. All of that changed on St. Petersburg Drive East. James was always home, and when he wasn’t home he was using the silver Isuzu pickup truck my dad loaned to my mom in exchange for child support. My dad was never a rich man and he had his own struggles with depression, mania, and he suffered through many existential crises that nearly cost him his job as a blue collar sign fabricator. I don’t know why we still use the term “blue collar worker” when I’ve seen my dad wear a collared shirt maybe four times in my entire life, including on my wedding day and at the rehearsal dinner.
Maybe it was the truck in the driveway or his perverted entrepreneurial spirit, but James started a landscaping company during the summer of 1992. I became his first hire. We drove around to houses we could never afford. I would mow grass then be rewarded with a Yoohoo! chocolate drink at the end of the job. James would handle other odd jobs like weed-whacking and landscaping. And when his weed-whacker broke down, my father, the small engine repair specialist and sign-maker, gave him a used but professional-grade weed-whacker that kept James in business. I never saw a dime from that summer job. The weed-whacker (pawned for beer money in 1992) and the seemingly free Isuzu made James greedy and he urged my mother to file for child support payments with the Court.
My father responded with fury one night after the start of my seventh grade school year.
I was in the bathtub on St. Petersburg Drive East. I was clumsily shaving my legs, sliding the Bic razor blade up my left shin when I heard someone punch a wall. I slipped. I skinned off a good three inches. The bathtub filled with my blood as the argument escalated in the living room. I tried to stop the bleeding and dry off, listening and not listening. My father demanded to spend time with us now that the State was garnishing his wages for child support. That meant he was taking me and my sister that night. A school night. It didn’t matter that he lived in Tampa and that I had an exam in the morning. Or, that I would have to get up an hour and a half earlier to entertain my father’s sobering split decision. None of that mattered; it was the principle of the matter. He wanted the Isuzu and the weed-whacker back, and if he couldn’t have them he was going to take the children.
So he took us. That night in Tampa was uncomfortable. My dad had only one bed and a couch. Not an ideal scenario for two young girls who had school in the morning. I laid wide awake in his bed with my sister. The next morning, my father drove us back to Oldsmar. It was the first time I ever consciously felt afraid of my father.
My father drove a white Chevrolet Econovan with no windows and a self-made clutch. My father rigged the standard transmission and clutch with a piece of metal and some MacGuyvering. On the drive from Tampa to Oldsmar, the brakes failed so downshifting, pulling over, and cutting the engine was the only way to brake and come to a complete stop. My father blasted his Pantera cassette tape and commented on the difficulty of the trip the entire twenty-plus miles. Never did he acknowledge that he put himself and his two daughters in danger. I went to school in pants and due to the scar on my shin I never wore shorts again until I was in my mid-twenties.
I got a dog after that. His name was Patches and he was one of those Spud Mackenzie dogs. I loved Patches the way I loved Misty, the basset hound that went to live with my dad after the divorce. I didn’t handle the news of Misty’s death well. I didn’t have to see her or comfort her on her death bed, but it’s always hard to lose a pet. It’s even harder to lose a childhood pet. It’s even harder yet to lose a childhood pet that’s given to you as a consolation for abandonment.
I found Patches at the end of his chain in the backyard. By the time I found him, he was already a little stiff as I picked him up and brought him to the cement slab in front of the sliding glass doors at the back of the triplex end unit. When I got there, I noticed his water dish was dry. I had forgotten to give him water before I left for school. I was in the seventh grade and my new routine didn’t allow time for TV watching or pet care. Looking at my dead pet, mental images of Patches at the end of his chain and his empty water bowl raced through my young mind. I felt guilty. I was a murderer by the age of twelve.
Patches is buried behind the triplex on St. Petersburg Drive East and as of 2017 his bones have not been compromised by housing authorities or development. I still don’t know if the cause of death was dehydration or simply a dog’s desire to run away from St. Petersburg Drive East.