The N-Word Lover: A Domestic Terror Tale from the “Before Times”

This is a piece from the “Before Times.” The “Before Times”:  That’s my term for the “good old days” when Dubya’s reign as worst US president in history seemed secure. When people were comparing him to Hitler. When others, myself included, were saying Bush was worse than Hitler. When Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney held the world champ title as most evil villain on the planet. When human rights groups the world over were going after Donald Rumsfeld for crimes against humanity. When we thought we’d hit rock bottom. Long before we had an inkling that the worst was yet to come, and what that would look like.

Two prominent European Nobel Laureates—Elfriede Jelinek (2004) and Harold Pinter (2005) ranked among the most credible voices drawing parallels between Bush and Hitler. As a translator for Elfriede Jelinek’s work, I inadvertently had a brush with that Old Dixie darkness signified here in the title “The N-word Lover.”

On its face, the title is a direct allusion to the delightfully iconoclast Hungarian Jewish playwright George Tabori whose playlets “The Demonstration” and “Man and Dog” were staged off Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre in New York in 1967 under the title “The Niggerlovers.” The event likely would have sunk into total-eclipse oblivion were it not for the fact that it was this production that gave actor Morgan Freeman his first major role.

Morgan Freeman in “The Niggerlovers” (1967)

The N-word Lover: Or Why I Think I Can’t Fly

It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening, it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest.

—Harold Pinter, “Art, Truth and Politics”, Nobel Prize for Literature Acceptance Speech, 2005

There are words in the English language some people believe ought be banned. But after several decades of dictionary scouring and vocabulary accumulation in German, English, and French, Salia Malachai could not conclude the same. There are enough words in the world that any moderately well-read human being should be positioned to place self-imposed limits on usage.

In her opinion, the F-word was not a bad one, nor was the B-word, but the N-word was. In her classes on urban black culture, it was next to impossible to avoid any one of these three.

Salia had inherited the class as a course on hip-hop from another professor. The first semester she taught it, she handed out 100 pages of profanity—in the form of hip hop lyrics—as part of the course packet. Even after she’d transformed the class into a horse of an entirely different color—with a “post-hip-hop” curriculum that explored the question, “how did we go from ‘fight the power’ to ‘get rich or die tryin’,’ and if get rich or die tryin’ is the only option, what do you think is more likely to occur?”–Salia still could not avoid these words altogether.

The way she explained her position to students was, “Look, I’m no fan of the N-word, and I choose not to use it myself, but my opinion on that word and its use doesn’t matter. It’s not my call to make.” She was also careful to explain the world of difference she saw separating profanity from obscenity.

“I don’t have a problem with profanity,” she would say, “I cuss like a sailor, and so does Theresa Heinz Kerry; as do many of your professors, behind closed doors. But I do have big problems with obscenity.”

She would pause to let words sink in before she continued, “In my life, I’ve seen more than my share of obscenity—I remember, for example, one time in Africa, watching this kid who was hit by a car on the road. I didn’t actually see him get hit, I came upon the scene just after the fact. His leg was broken in two—literally, bent back on itself, with bone protruding from each end, and dripping with blood. I offered to help the people milling around him—offered to pay for the taxi ride to the hospital, and the hospital bill, too. They turned me down, packed the kid on the back of a moped between two adults, one in front and one in back, then drove off, with the last of his blood trailing behind, mingling with exhaust and stirring up the red sand of the pista. It wasn’t until years later that I understood: the hospital ‘care’ the child would have received would have done more harm than good—locals knew the city’s hospital care was worse than no medical treatment at all. So it wasn’t even about having enough money to pay. The kid was already as good as dead. The only good deed to be done was to take him home to die in his mother’s arms. To me, that was obscene.

As a kid growing up, I once witnessed a similar scene from my second-story tenement window as the driver of a fourth-generation Chevy Impala Super Sport with tinted windows hit my childhood friend, Julio, sent him sailing across the street, then drove off. Julio landed in the gravel his mother’s front yard. By the time the ambulance arrived, Julio was dead. Fatality hit and run? No charges filed, and that was the end. To me, that, too, was obscene.”

“But even these degrees of obscenity,” she assured her students, “pale in comparison to the most obscene thing I have ever in my life seen: the United States’ response to Hurricane Katrina. If that is not the epitome of obscenity, then I don’t know what is.”

This wasn’t hyperbole. It wasn’t hysteria. Salia was merely telling her truth.

As a pedagogical strategy, it was an introductory salvo: A set-up.

Sometimes you have to fight fire with flames.

She continued, “There are times when only one word in the English language does the trick—and that is the F-word. Now. I don’t know how many of you caught this, but one of the most memorable moments of the Katrina fiasco for me was Dick Cheney’s press conference in New Orleans on September 8, 2005—about ten days after the storm. Dr. Ben Marble, a young ER physician whose Gulfport home was destroyed by the Cat-5 surge, rode by on his bike and blurted out—on national television—‘Go FUCK yourself, Mr. Cheney!’. This, in my opinion, was an altogether appropriate use of the F-word, especially in consideration of the fact that then-Vice President Cheney had used these very words himself in his role as President of the US Senate. He did not shout them out on the streets of a devastated city whose claim to fame was not exactly its ‘Queen’s English’: VP Cheney used precisely these words to disparage Senator Patrick Leahy by telling him to ‘Fuck himself’ on the Senate floor. Yes, on the Senate floor, addressing a senior US-senator who dared to question Cheney about his ties to the Halliburton Corporation that has been embroiled in controversy over no-bid contracts in Iraq, bribery in Nigeria, and a litany of other multi-million/billion dollar criminal offenses. Dr. Ben Marble’s use of this term to express his dissatisfaction with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina was not only justified by a precedent set by Cheney himself on the Senate floor, it was possibly the only response that made any sense at all.”

The propriety of the F-word in political discourse and in American public life has since been further confirmed by John Boehner’s use of the phrase “Go fuck yourself!” addressed to Senator Harry Reid on December 28, 2012 outside the Oval Office. As language professors and writers know, the F-word is a versatile animal that may be deployed as an insult in this way—but an F-bomb need not be an insult because Fuck can also be used as an adjective to modify a noun—as Vice President Joe Biden was caught muttering to President Barack Obama at the signing of the 2010 health care reform bill into law: “This is a big fucking deal.”

Salia thought the way she’d turned her own life around was a big fucking deal, too, and most people who knew the story agreed. But there weren’t a lot of people who knew. On rare occasions, someone would ask: “So, how did you do it?” And she would say, “While doing time as a juvenile, I realized that prison was not where I wanted to be, and I promised myself ‘whatever I may or may not do with my life, I will never do anything to let ‘them’ lock me up again.”

Only once had she faltered, and that was under the most unlikely circumstances. Salia had been invited to offer a lecture at a prestigious private university in the Deep South. She’d recently completed translations from the German of a Nobel Prize-winning literary figure—a radical, pinko-commie feminist author whose propensity for impropriety, foul language, salacious imagery, and political provocation caused a member of the Swedish Academy to step down, saying that this particular author’s work was a bunch of shit shoveled together. By the time Salia had translated that Nobel Prize-winning author’s work into English, she was inclined to agree, but that didn’t change the fact that—even after having slogged through said mass of shit in German, and shoveled it back together in English—she remained on the same page with the author. Seems the Nobel Committee recognized that a lot of shit going on in the world was in need of some hardcore shit-flinging. Elfriede Jelinek was a shit-slinger. And a good one.

Salia had been contracted to complete one of the Nobel Laureate’s most anti-American works: a scathing, brutally forthright critique of the Iraq War, and the media’s representation of the same. The literary work included references to such political figureheads as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Tony Blair and others, by name: this author did not beat around the bush—she beat the living literary shit out of Bush, and exposed the shitstorm of the war for the shitshow that it was. Part of what made the work so sensationalistic was that it was written, published and performed as the Iraq War was ongoing: it involved live literary coverage of the shit as it went down, much in the same way Aeschylus’s Greek tragedy “The Persians” covered Xerxes’ defeat at Salamis.[i] There was a lot of shit to shovel through there.

Salia had prepared a lecture which included a detailed account of her work on the translation not only of the Bush-bit, but several other works from the Nobel Laureate’s oeuvre. One section of Salia’s lecture was titled “Professional Bush Bashing at the Nobel-Prize Level.” The lecture itself went off without a hitch and could have been declared a spectacular success. In another lifetime, it might have landed her a job at the Ivy League school—had it not been for what came next. The organizers at the college had arranged for a number of other readings and events, paid for her plane ticket, her hotel stay and meals—all adeptly booked in advance by the department secretary. There had been luncheons, and dinners—good food, good wine, good company and pleasant conversation in ample supply. It was an informal job talk.

In preparation for her trip to the Deep South, Salia had to select from her wardrobe an overcoat—one that was neither too light nor too heavy, and one she could comfortably fit over a suit jacket with padded shoulders. The only coat in Salia’s closet that fit the bill was a tailor-made, knee-length, broad-cut mudcloth coat she had acquired on one of several trips to West Africa, where the hand-made cotton fabric dyed with fermented mud was known as bogolanfini and was rich with cultural significance. Traditionally, in Malian culture, the fabric is worn by hunters—often as a form of camouflage, ritual protective gear, or as a badge of honor. Standing before the full-length mirror in her home office, sizing up the Dana Buchman brown linen suit she planned to wear for the presentation, she pulled the mudcloth coat over her professorially padded shoulders—“This will do nicely,” she thought, and checked “pick and pack lightweight coat” off her trip-preparation to-do list. In retrospect, she would recall hesitating briefly, questioning the wisdom of traveling to the Deep South garbed in her fair skin and that Afrocentric gear. She had dismissed the concern as trifling, paranoid even—a decision she would come to regret.

Upon completing the exhilarating, albeit exhausting three-day whirlwind tour, Salia arrived at the airport for the return trip. At the taxi stand, she stood on the curb to smoke one last cigarette before entering the terminal, and witnessed the way a sharply-attired African American woman—obviously a professional of some sort, whether doctor, lawyer, professor, or corporate executive—was berated for some minor offense by a slight white male cop with a crew cut. Salia stood just out of earshot, so was not privy to the details, but from the gestures and tone of the brief exchange, it was apparent that the altercation probably had as much to do with the color of the woman’s skin as it did with the trappings of privilege she so deftly displayed.

Salia shook the chagrin from her head, deposited her snuffed-out cigarette in the smokers’ outpost, and proceeded toward the revolving glass doors. As she approached them, she found herself shoulder to shoulder with the well-dressed woman. It didn’t take much to read the more-things-change-sigh on the woman’s face. After giving the woman right of way to pass through the doors ahead of her, Salia said, in a pathetically inadequate way, ”I am so sorry you had to go through that.” Salia did not fault the woman for brushing her off with a brusque, “Whatever.”

Salia was wiped out from the weekend. She wheeled a basic black 26-inch American Tourister soft-side bag behind her which she checked at the ticket counter without incident, but had stowed her valuables in an overstuffed black leather carry-on bag—the vintage Rolex she’d inherited from a millionaire friend who had discarded it as junk (Salia would discover a decade later that the thing appraised at nearly $6,000 and was in perfect working order); hand-crafted, authentic, one-of-a-kind American Indian sterling silver earrings (inlaid with the blood of her ancestors known as Pipestone) and electronic devices—a digital camera, a hand-held video camera, orange Nokia phone. The bag was bulging with pens, reading materials, and all manner of stuff: the chicken-dumpling soup for her soul. Salia had never been one to travel light—she carried her cultural baggage with her wherever she went in the same way the turtle carries her home in a shell on her back.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, Salia had found it increasingly difficult to fly. The noise level alone was insufferable, especially at US Airports: Blaring, in an endless loop, over and over again, from 10 separate monitors in a monotone, mechanical, brutally white male voice: ATTENTION ALL PASSENGERS: DUE TO INCREASED SECURITY, REGULATIONS CONCERNING CARRY-ON ITEMS HAVE CHANGED. PLEASE REMAIN BEHIND THE YELLOW LINE UNTIL THE PASSENGER BEFORE YOU HAS PASSED THROUGH THE SECURITY CHECKPOINT IN FRONT OF YOU. PLEASE REMOVE YOUR OVERCOAT, ALL METAL ITEMS, CELL PHONES AND ELECTRONIC DEVICES AND PLACE THEM IN THE RECEPTICLE PROVIDED. PLEASE PLACE ALL HAND LUGGAGE ON THE CONVEYER BELT. LAPTOP COMPUTERS MUST BE REMOVED FROM THEIR CASES AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYOR BELT. ANY LIQUIDS, AEROSOLS, AND GELS MUST BE IN THREE-OUNCE CONTAINERS. THESE MUST BE SAFELY KEPT INSIDE A ONE-QUART PLASTIC ZIP-TOP BAG AND PLACED ON THE CONVEYER BELT. THIS INCLUDES COMMON ITEMS SUCH AS TOOTHPASTE, SHAMPOO, LOTIONS, LIPSTICKS AND MOUTHWASH. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT. ON THE CONVEYER BELT.

The racket itself was enough to drive Salia near to the edge. The relentless bark from the monitors: the banter of 100 people—most of them Americans, notorious for their loud speaking-in-public voices—all talking at once, each engaged in a personal conversation on a cell phone with spouse, sister, uncle Sam, auntie Sue, some cousin twice-removed, or in tenuated brabble with the automated voice messaging system of their credit card companies. Salia developed what she called her “listen-lady-I-really-don’t-want-to-hear-about-the-color-of-your-baby’s-shit-today”-look, but it rarely produced results because it just looked like the same old run-of-the-mill ugly American glare most passengers wore on their faces as a matter of course. She was trying to look mean; instead, she merely came off seeming like she was having a bad hair day!

Salia made it through security, arrived at the gate, plunked herself and her bulging bag down on the floor because all the seats had been taken. Then it happened: Flight 302 to Chicago O’Hare was cancelled. Due to the weather. Weather? What weather? Heavy snow in Chicago. Great. She approached the American Airlines personnel at the gate, was able to secure a standby ticket on a later—much later—flight. She left the gate area in search of a restaurant or some sort of retail therapy to pass the time until she could finally board the plane and extract herself from the querulous push and shove of the terminal. On the way, she discovered that this airport was perhaps the last in the country with a smoking lounge. That was at least something. In the smoking lounge, she lit up, and got on the phone with a friend to piss and moan about the situation, but could barely hear herself think, much less speak, above a din rising across the room behind her. She turned to see what the commotion was. A group of young US-soldiers was standing around, handing out Marlboro cigarettes, explaining to the crowd that they had just returned from Iraq, where these American cigarettes were available at bottom dollar on the black market in Baghdad.

That’s when Salia lost it. She raised her voice, raised it far above the decibel-level most Americans considered normal. Salia shouted into the phone, “Oh wow. Hey, guess what? I finally figured it out. Why we are at war in Iraq? It’s not even about the oil, or the no-bid contracts for Halliburton. No. IT’S ABOUT THE CIGARETTES! Yeah, girlfriend, there you have it—we went into Iraq, bombed the fuck out of them, put the lives of our troops, our country’s reputation, and a whole lot more on the line so we could bring back these cheap cigarettes from the black market in Baghdad. All hail the Marlboro Man!”

The smoking lounge fell silent, if only for a moment. In the faces of the returning soldiers, most in their early twenties, Salia saw but one thing: young people, like the young people in her classes, young people with few options in life—and even fewer in death. Salia was too much a born teacher to resist the teaching moment. She turned off her phone, heaved a heavy sigh, marched over to the group of young soldiers gathered there, still sucking on their Marlboros, glaring at her, staring—not least of all at the knee-length, broad cut mudcloth coat camouflaging the soft brown linen and the puffy padded shoulders of the professor suit beneath it. With as much composure as she could muster, she tried to explain her objections to the US invasion of Iraq and how, if nothing else, these young men, casually kickin’ it and passing out cheap Marlboro cigarettes to passengers in a smoking lounge at an American airport were engaging in conduct unbecoming of any American citizen, much less any Private First Class or Officer of the US Army.

Their response: “We’re Marines, you fucking Bitch! What kind of fucked-up Nazi asshole you think you are?”

Salia shot back: “I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a PhD’d fucking professor and I’ve got kids in my classes whom I’m passing when by all rights and means I should be flunking them, but I know serving in the military may be their only other option because the educational system in the country has failed them–miserably. I’d almost rather see them get rich or die tryin’ than risk death by IED in some security convoy in Iraq or by PTSD on some battlefield closer to home.” She punctuated her statement with the sweeping gesture of an emphatically balled fist drawn dramatically from her right shoulder to her left side. Her students were familiar with this theatrical clenched-fist conviction, and, while it may have frightened them at first, they’d since learned—from her—to distinguish between anger and outrage, between commitment and apathy, indifference and love. If students completed her courses learning little else, it was this much they knew: Dr. Salia Malachai was passionately committed not only to her students, but to her country, and was possessed by the courage of her convictions. This pack of puppy-dogs in uniform who dared call themselves Marines doing duty for Philip Morris and Leo Burnett had no idea who they were dealing with.

A law enforcement officer arrived promptly on the scene to break up the quarrel. He pulled Dr. Malachai off to the side, escorted her back to the waiting area designated for the flight to Chicago, whereupon she learned that she had not only thus forfeited her standby spot on the flight to Chicago, but that—furthermore—all subsequent air traffic to Chicago had been cancelled, due to the weather. Salia would not be sleeping in her own bed tonight.

Salia sat herself down in one of the last available plastic-backed, poorly contoured chairs in the waiting area, pausing to contemplate whether it was worth venturing out to book a room for the night, or better to simply suck it up and crash there on the floor, when she was approached by two uniformed officers who began questioning her in earnest. She recognized one of them as the cop who had harassed the African American female professional at the taxi stand just hours before.

They grilled her, menacingly: whether she was currently taking any medication? Whether she had now, or ever, received medical treatment for any sort of mental health condition? Salia had never learned to lie, and saw no harm in telling the truth. Besides, if they decided to search and/or seize, they would find the prescription meds buried somewhere at the bottom of her bulky black bag. Yes, she had been prescribed by her physician a mild sedative to treat the anxiety associated with the fear of flying brought on by the stress of modern-day travel. And yes, she had, in the past, received treatment for a mental health condition—PTSD—resulting from years of early childhood trauma, rape, domestic abuse, incest, poverty and neglect, compounded now by culture shock, anxiety and an overall inability to cope with disaster capitalism.

It wasn’t until they placed her in handcuffs that she realized honesty may not have been the best policy today. Handcuffs. White guy in a crew cut with a handgun, oh boy! For the first time in her adult life. For the first time in over forty years, Dr. Salia Malachai was being hauled off in handcuffs. Escorted by the same racist white cop she’d seen harassing the African American woman outside the terminal just footsteps from this scene. That’s when it dawned on her. The coat. The conversation with the woman as they passed through the revolving door. The concerns she had dismissed as paranoid delusions while standing before the floor-length mirror in her office now cascaded down her cheeks in humiliation, and fear. She had no idea what was about to come next.

There is only one thing that Southern white racists hate more than an N-word: their disdain for ”them N-words” was surpassed only by their hatred of “them N-wordlovers”. The N-words had no choice but to be as lacking in color as the six-foot long raw silk scarf dangling delicately now from Salia’s soft shoulders. These N-wordLovers, on the other hand, they had made a choice. Salia had revealed her decision by daring to wear that damn coat and by the laying on of hands in the brief quip exchanged with the woman as they passed through the revolving door, witnessed by the racist white cop, from behind. She’d made her choice, now she was staring down the consequences as the sum of all colors drained into her face.

As they exited through a drab gray steel-plated door in some remote, unpeopled corner of the airport, she pleaded with the officer, “Please, can we just let this go? I’ll catch a cab and get a room for the night.”

“No, ma’am, we can’t—you are coming with me.”

From the back seat of the squad car, in the sweetest, most unfeigned helpless-female voice ever issued from her own gullet—Salia sobbed one final appeal through the steel mesh cage confining her now: “Please, Sir, would you at least do me the favor of calling my husband?” For whatever inexplicable, god-blessed reason, the officer honored this one request. She gave him the number. He dialed. Salia could not hear her husband’s voice on the other end of the line, and struggled to repress her own as the officer explained to Salia’s husband that there had been an incident at the airport and his wife was now being transported to the hospital for examination. To the hospital. Yeah right.

Salia’s husband was a man who had never in his life had any contact with the law. He’d been raised in a strict Baptist household. His mother held Bible-study classes in the basement while his father preached from the pulpit with all the same driving passion and courage of convictions that Salia’s husband found so attractive in his own wife. There was no way her husband could so much as imagine his wife’s hard-handcuffed plight, there in the back seat of a squad car on her way to the piss-and-puke stained cement floor of a 10-by-10 foot-holding cell in a county jail. In his mind, she was lying somewhere on the crisp white sheet of a hospital emergency room, being tended to by doting physicians and nurses, waiting for him to come take her hand in his, and bring her back home. She had probably passed out from exhaustion at the airport, or fainted from the stress of an overbooked and cancelled flight. He had no idea. This much she knew, and there was nothing she could do but finally, finally shut.the.fuck.UP. So she did.

The cop had no way of knowing that the other thing she’d just learned was the value of little white lies. The man at the other end of the line wasn’t really Salia’s husband. Not yet. In intimate circles, she sometimes referred to him as ”My husband, if he would ever marry me.” They’d been together for over a decade, but had not yet jumped the broom.

Based on statements Salia had made concerning her medical history, the cop knew that Salia could be detained for 72-hours, subjected to involuntary psychiatric examination by the department of corrections. Recounting the incident now, ten years hence, the precise chain of events blurred into a muddled stream of bleepity-bleep-bleep-bleepity-bleebs. It mattered little what happened first—whether she was stripped of her belongings before or after the mug shot was taken, how she had managed to hang on to the pearls, whether she’d given her share of water to the homeless woman on the floor beside her or to the 16-year old hooker who came in later, whether she’d been able to chuckle about being the best-dressed bitch in the county jail at the time, whether she’d managed to laugh about always having been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room before or after her Rosary-like fingering of the pearls began,—as a 72-hour stream of salt, sweat and tears spattered the black raw-silk scarf she’d also been allowed to keep, along with the coat, for which her gratitude grew with each passing hour. Lightest and loudest thing in the room: this much was true. All of the other inmates in this county jail were very dark Brown. All of them. She remembered the subdued decibel level, first in the holding cell, then later, after she’d been transferred by paddy wagon for processing and entered the general prison population of several hundred others, most of them men. It was a welcome relief from the glaring white noise of that heavens-to-Betsy-forsaken airport.

            Only later, much later, did Salia learn what was happening on the other end of the phone line, back home where her husband scrambled to keep his wits about him, gathering information, thoughts, and whatever else he would need to head south and get her out of jail. She knew only that he would be pissed. She could not even be sure he would come. He would have been entirely justified in leaving her to find her own way home from that county jail. She knew that. At some point in the ordeal, somewhere between those godforsaken hours spent lying on the concrete floor of the holding cell and the wee hours of the morning spent in quiet isolation teetering horizontal on an eight-by-two-and-a-half-foot hardwood bench of some other room just hours away from her appointment with the shrink, her imagination ran wild with nightmarish visions of suddenly being released into the dawning day, standing on some street corner hoping to hail a cab with nothing on her but a US-passport, a brown linen suit, that mudcloth coat with its raw silk scarf, and those white pearls—no credit card, no phone, not a dime to her name—not even a map to tell her where the hell she was.

Salia’s husband didn’t know a thing about county jails, and even Salia was confused as to where this one was—but she knew enough to know that wherever it was, it could not be located in a good part of town. All she could do was hope and pray that her husband would not abandon her. That this would not be the start of an unprecedented pre-nuptial divorce. She beseeched every God she knew by name—called upon her husband’s mother and father in heaven to reach down to shower him with all the brimstone of unconditional love he was going to need to do whatever he had to do to bring Salia home. A mad chorus of Migwitch-Gitcheemanidoos, Nam-Yo-HoYahwehAllahBuddahRenGeKyos, JesusMaryJosephs, AsalaamalaikumAndThenSomes sprinkled with a few refrains of GodBlessTheChiles, MotherMaryComfortMes and Don’tFenceMeIns helped pull her through this darkest night. She sent silent thank you notes to a string of Kris Kristoffersons, Dusty Springfields, Bobby Dylans, Arlo Guthries, Soundiata Keitas and not least of all to tenor saxman Trane.

            One thing Salia knew about prisons was that someone was always watching. Every move, however slight; every word, however softly spoken, was caught, not only on tape, but by the careful eyes and ears of any officer worth his or her salt. She knew that. So she spent her time sending smoke signals to the prison staff, 90% of whom were as sable brown as the 100% African American prison population they were charged with keeping in check and in chains. She had seen the look on their faces when the racist white cop first brought her in. They knew this guy. They may have even been thinking to themselves, “Shit, ‘bout time you bring some white bitch up in here!” And she couldn’t fault them for that. But she knew, too, that it soon became apparent to them: this was not the first time Salia had been the lightest and the loudest thing in the room, nor was it the first time this woman had been hauled off in cuffs to spend a night in the county jail. This was a place where information passed from eye-to-eye. Where you didn’t need ears to hear what someone was saying. Here, on the inside, Salia didn’t need a mudcloth coat as a signifier to identify her as an N-wordlover. Especially in prison, actions speak louder than words.

            She was grateful, then, to the prison staff for tidbits of comfort served surreptitiously up to keep her from losing her mind. Eternally grateful to the female corrections officer who raised her voice just enough to notify the driver of the transport, as Salia came within earshot, “That one won’t be processed, her husband’s on his way to get her.” The officer who kindly offered her an apple while escorting her in the elevator to that isolated holding room with its hardwood bench, four stark walls and the slit of a window to help her tell time. Toward ordeal’s end, after she’d spent 15 minutes with an East Indian teak-faced shrink who apologized profusely, “I’m so sorry, Dr. Malachai, that you had to go through this, we’ll try getting you out as soon as we can,” the uniformed cops making jokes about Chicago’s south side, loudly enough to be overheard, talking about Daley’s on 63rd, and Joe’s jerk chicken joint further south on Cottage, thereby letting Salia know that, even here, in this heart of darkness of the Deep South, she remained among friends. Family even. Kith, perhaps even kin.

            In retrospect, it was hard to re-construct a chronological account of the events that followed. One failed attempt to place a collect call to her husband’s cell. Had he decided not to accept it? Maybe he’d run out of bars, or was he on a plane en route, just out of reach? Oh God, please let the latter be true. What was taking so long? He would later explain that he’d tried to book a flight the very same day, but all flights in and out of O’Hare had been cancelled. Where the hell was all her stuff? Would she get any or all of it back? The watch. The camera. The sacred silver. Everything else she had in her bag. And what about the suitcase she had checked to Chicago?

As was his habit, her husband had been sure to cover all bases, asking once, then asking again. The racist white cop had placed that first call from his private cell phone, and Salia’s husband had captured the number on his caller ID. They’d been calling back and forth the whole time, playing out the lie that Salia was receiving treatment in some department of corrections hospital bed. Salia’s husband spoke an impeccably proper English without a hint of Ebonic ring to it, so the cop assumed all the while he would be delivering this N-wordlover-bitch into the hands of some smug little white dude with his twisted head stuck so far up his ass he could see the backs of his teeth without looking in the mirror. Each time he put the receiver down, her husband had gone back to check on the details, to verify, filtering fact from fiction, extracting truth from the lies: the cop had given him any number of bits of false information, and that’s what had tipped off Salia’s husband-if-he-would-ever-marry-her. His wife was in deep shit, and he had to keep his wits about him, contain his own outrage—mostly toward her and her inability to keep herself together, especially at the airport. But he would buck up and wrack up debt on his credit cards. He knew better than anyone how much Salia hated to fly, how she could not stand the airport routine—the push and shove of it, the people who did not know what it meant to take their own turn in line. The barking, yes, above all the barking and the blaring. He knew she would not be able to fly coach. Not this time. The tickets had to be first-class. Bose headphones to block out the blather. She would probably need her contacts—addresses of allies, if nothing else to call in sick if she needed. So he grabbed the laptop she’d left lying asleep on her desk. He thought of everything. Absolutely everything. He always did.

Those interminable last five minutes, standing in line against the wall with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release, singing softly to herself songs of blacksmiths, of brave men, living and dead, a whole sable army of African descent. The memory of a hot African sun warming her from within, taking her back to the day she had picked up that coat from the tailor’s stand in Conakry. The chestnut-brown cop who called her to the counter at the last station she had to pass before hitting the outside, how she had asked, “Is my husband out there?”, and was so terrified of the answer that she slipped on her tongue one last time.

“White guy or Black?” he wondered. She flapped back: “Pardon me, Sir, but do I look like the kind of woman who ‘d go marryin’ a white guy?” Her relief at the sight of him swallowing a laugh. Thank you, Sir, thank you for that. Even in her darkest hours, Salia prided herself on her ability to bring smiles to other people’s faces.

The dinner in the hotel restaurant, clad in the one blouse she had left on her back, which still stunk of piss, but with nails, skin and hair freshly showered, underwear turned inside out and the soft pastel polish of those pearls shining at his seated across the table. He could not guarantee that this would not spell The End. No, he could not. He had come to bring her home. That was all. She seriously did not know whether he would stick around to see what came next.

She let him do most of the talking, restricting herself to a series of apologies: “I’m sorry baby. I’m so sorry.” He hadn’t known the first thing about bail bonds, or the blueprints of a county jail before this. First stop upon landing: airport security, where he’d asked for Officer R.F. Krupptkey. She suppressed a grin as she imagined the look on the faces of the guy’s African American co-workers as they summoned Officer K. to the front desk, even more when she imagined the surprise besetting Officer K. the moment he first laid eyes on the man he’d been on the line with over the past 72 hours, a man whose deep chocolate brown face was set squarely on Chicago-broad shoulders that just about met Krupptkey’s hairline.

“Oh. You are that woman’s husband? The guy I been talking to all this time?”

“Yes, Sir, I am. Now, can we get a few things sorted out here? You told me this was the address and these the hours of operation for property pick up,” Salia’s husband tapped his left pointer finger on the address printed on his list, “but the State Department of Corrections website says something else. Can you confirm for me which one is correct? And what time did you say they open on Monday?”

Her husband had stood there, interrogating Officer K., methodically checking each question off his hand-written list. “What about this recovered property receipt? Isn’t she supposed to have that on her person, or where is that? We are going to need it.” Krupptkey thumbed clumsily through the papers on his clipboard, pulled out the crumpled pink page and handed it to Mr. M.

Listening to her husband relate this series of events, Salia had to force back the smile that threatened to shimmy in above her chin. She knew that one false word uttered from her loose lips might prompt him to unceremoniously hand her a big fat pink slip. She sniveled instead, raising a Kleenex to her nose. The man sitting across the table from her was in no frame of mind to translate even the slightest trace of a grin into an expression of a love this supreme.

“Do you have any idea what this is costing me? $1,500 bail. First class tickets on American Air. Car rental. Hotel. We are going to have to find—on a Sunday afternoon—an attorney to get your ass out of this hot ghetto mess!”

Her meekly muttered “I’m sorry, baby, I promise, I’ll pay it all back,” plopped into the mashed potatoes growing cold on her plate.

“Both of us are going to have a hell of time making it back in time for work on Monday.” She couldn’t remember when he confessed that, as he was approaching the county jail, he had looked up, scanned the black, bullet-proof rectangles dotting the towering concrete above, on the slight chance she might see him coming, and waved. He had no way of knowing that, once you make it that far to the top of any county jail in the country, there was no way in hell you’d so much as come near one of those windows—not unless you were a doctor, lawyer or cop! But that was the first shred of hope he gave that he was in this for the long haul.

He hadn’t reckoned with the court date. His wife had been charged with two counts of disorderly conduct: Charge one, fighting. Charge two: violent act with another. Both of them misdemeanor charges, criminal violations of the same section of a city ordinance. Back in the hotel room, she perused the arrest citation. She could barely make it out:

Subject was inside secure area on I-Concourse in the smoking room. Subject attempted to verbally assault four army soilders, then continued to yell and act out towards passengers. Subject stated she is PTSD and on 5 mg Valium, three times a day. Subject acted out inappropriately when telling me about serving men, getting extremely angry, clinching her fists. Witness stated subject got up—went across room—at the soilders. Salia stated: I’m a fucking PhD to soilders.

Not a word about the “fucking Bitch” and “Nazi asshole” barked at her from the soilders’ mouths. Not a word about the Marlboro cigarettes that had triggered the attack. Salia was struck, too, by the absence of any reference to the subject’s height, weight, or gender: 5’1”, 100 lb female attempting to assault four helpless army soilders, and that with clinched fists, how about that?

She lay on the bed in the hotel room, reminded of the previous morning’s wee hours on the hardwood bench, how she had hoped and prayed her husband would be smart enough to grab the laptop. Without it they were fucked. All Salia’s belongings had been confiscated. She had nothing. But he had grabbed it. She’d hooked up the laptop, shot off an email to a good friend who was an attorney out east. The friend in turn placed a call to a local attorney on the ground—the best criminal defense attorney in town, who happened to be available to take the case. By late Sunday afternoon, her husband was busy hammering out the details of what had to happen next.

 The first thing he learned. Those first-class return tickets for two that evening? Fuggedaboutdat. These would have to be re-booked. Before they could appear in court Monday morning, they would have to go shopping because Professor Doctor Salia Malachai would have to look sharp as the professorial tack that had been called a fucking Nazi asshole bitch in the airport smoking lounge: if she ever hoped to defend her own reply, she’d best look the part. No one knew whether she would have to look the judge in the eye and admit that she had indeed said, “I’m a fucking PhD’d professor!” Salia and her husband would have to be first in line when the property dispensary opened promptly at 8 (not at 9, as Krupptkey had claimed) because even the slightest delay could cause them to get caught in traffic, or otherwise manage to lose their place in the docket and miss the court appearance scheduled for 10 AM. Oh, and the lawyer’s fee? About double the $1,500 bail, but that would include subsequent expungement of the arrest from her record.

As it turns out, both charges were dismissed because the victims of the crime—that is, the Marlboro Man-PFC’s–never showed up in court. Of course they didn’t. Everything that had transpired had been caught on tape. The Marlboros. The fucking bitch, the fucking Nazi asshole. All of it, conduct unbecoming. Salia took some measure of satisfaction in the look on Officer R.F. Krupptkey’s face when he entered the courtroom to see her sitting there in full professorial garb. She was smartly sandwiched between the best criminal defense attorney in town—a tall, slim white guy known for getting bogus cases like this thrown out of court, especially where young African American males were involved—and her husband, the big Starbucks-Dark-Roast-Coffee-Colored guy who’d come through to rescue the dizzy damsel in all her fine dress.

            She knew what the racist white cop thought he was doing when he came after her with the cuffs and a legal technicality that allowed him to haul her off to the county jail. “OK, N-wordlover, let’s see how much you really love them N-words.” When she finally met him face to face in court the following Monday, she bit her tongue. Gagging on the stench of Old Dixie after dark, she thought to herself: “You know what, you stupid racist fuck, I stand with Sharon Olds, and just about every poet and writer I know on this one: I’d rather spend a night-and-a-half on the floor of the county jail with these N-words than sit down at the table with you for a liter of Weizenbier in some Munich beer hall, and if I had the money, baby, if I had the time, if I had me a million dollars–yes, I would send your sorry ass right back where you came from!”

Even if Salia’s victims had appeared in court—the case would have gone nowhere: In his zeal to put that fucking N-wordloving PhD’d Nazi professor bitch in her place, Officer Krupptkey had fucked up. He had forgotten to secure her signature on the recovered property list. That was the clincher: this had been the attorney’s ace in the hole. The card they never had to play because these Marines could not admit that they’d been driven to the edge by a five-foot-one female armed with a bag full of chicken-dumpling-soup for the soul and the courage of her convictions all balled together in one emphatically clenched fist.

Salia had never flown first class before. Nor had she ever tried to tackle the constant stream of TMI’s by placing Bose headphones on her head. She reclined in her seat, and pulled the property list from her bag. By sheer force of habit, she dug around in her bag for a fine-line red pen, but could only procure a thick-pointed Sharpie, black as the circles and arrows fermented in the tapestry of her rusty-brown mudcloth coat. With this pen in hand, she went over the list one more time:

Nokia cell phone

3 books + address book

Cannon S-40 digital camera w/case and three batters

Rolex watch w/ brown band

Kenneth Cole watch w/black band

Jewery – 2 necklesses (costume set)

Silver earrings/red earrings

Jewery– silver neckless

2 dimond earrings/dimond neckless w/ 3 dimonds

misc college ids – library card

Cannon Z R60 camcorder w/microphone

Black purse—larger w/nine pins

There it was: the Jewery, present and accounted for; batters, all charged up and ready to go; the cannon, loaded and locked. The necklesses, the dimonds: all crystal clear, but “pins”? What the fuck were these pins? Pins? I don’t carry pins around in my bag. She flipped through the individual 5X7 envelopes that had contained the items. There it was again, “pins”. Her left nostril curled in confusion.

Then it dawned on her. She turned to her husband and said, “Honey, I think I’m gonna need another glass of this fine first-class American Airlines wine.” She sat back with a sip, and let it sink in: the Pinteresque truth of this thing that had never happened. She had just been arrested, thrown in jail, gone to court, and had a criminal arrest expunged—in the course of one $7,000 three-day weekend fling—hauled off in cuffs to the county jail by a racist white cop with a handgun who could not even spell this simple four-letter word: P. E. N. S.

            “You can’t make this shit up,” she thought, as she sat there writing it all down with the broad brush of her fat black Sharpie pen, “We are handing out handguns and handcuffs to people who cannot handle the four-letter word P.E.N.S., then giving them license to cuff and haul off fucking PhD’d professors suffering from PTSD?”

By the time they landed in Chicago, a poem had written itself in her head, and this is what it said:

White noise at daybreak we hear it in mourning

We hear it on this day and that day we hear it at night

We shut up and listen

We shovel their shit in the air where it stinks like their crap

A man with a handgun, with a handcuff armed with a pen

A man with a handgun, a handcuff, it’s off to the pen

He bashes a white bitch, bankrupts a black man

And takes it all down, yes, he takes it all down

The diamonds, the necklace, the earrings, the pins

In the purse, in the purse on the conveyer belt

conveyer belt, the belt on the conveyer belt

the belt and the bray of it, the blare and the bark

the push and the shove, can you say wtf?

white noise at daybreak white noise at night

white noise oh white noise will you shut the fuck up?

The jewery the jewery can we call dr freud?

The jewery the jewery did you get back your droid?

White noise at daybreak on Indian land

White noise in water on Indian land

Poverty, poverty, Indian land?

Poverty, yes, poverty, on Indian land.

White noise and war on Indian land,

Dig your debt deeper, pile your shit higher

Higher and higher and higher you go

Postscript: Salia’s husband eventually got over his anger. They were later married, in a ceremony performed by a pastor in their own home. She officially changed her name to Salia Malaikum. He placed his mother’s ring on her finger, and she knew they were both in it for the long haul.

 But that didn’t happen until he made a thing or two perfectly clear. Storming round the house, staring dispassionately at the breakfast table, huffing off to work in the morning without a kiss goodbye. He repeated it over and over until it finally sunk in.

            “You have got to understand that, in the current climate of the United States, as soon as you set foot on airport property, you are already in the hands of the federal government: you are already in the pen, already in the hands of law enforcement, the TSA. These people do not fuck around, and you must conduct yourself accordingly. I hope you get that now.”

            She did. And that is why Salia Malaikum cannot fly. It goes all the way back to that adolescent pact made with herself. No matter what. Never. Do anything. Nothing that will allow them to lock you up again. She knew now that the airport was not far removed from that cold tile wall she’d leaned up against, waiting in line with the rest of the prisoners who’d been prepared for release.


[i] Jelinek, Elfriede. Bambiland. Tr. Lillian Friedberg. 2005-07. 31. March 2013. http://www.elfriedejelinek.com.

—-. Theater 39.3 (2009): 111-43.

The Lecture, in its entirety, is here. At a later date, I will be supplementing this with additional information about Elfriede Jelinek and my translations of her work

Translating the Untranslatable: Elfriede Jelinek in Translation

Lilian Friedberg©2006

Invited Lecture, Emory University, November 9, 2006

When the 2004 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I wasn’t much more familiar with this  radically feminist author than the rest of the international literary community that was sent scrambling to its web browsers and library catalogues in search of an answer to the question “Who is Elfriede Jelinek?”

I completed my first translation of Jelinek about a year before the Nobel decision—it was the essay, “Ein Volk. Ein Fest.” “One People. One Party”– Jelinek’s 1999 published response to the re-election of proto-fascist rightwing politician Jörg Haider as governor of Carinthia. Like most of Jelinek’s writing, this op-ed is peppered with allusions to current events–to local, regional and specifically Austrian political currents; it is peopled by literary figures and figurations, interlaced with fictions and facts often rendered indistinguishable as they are interwoven in a complex tapestry of wordplay and puns, many of them delivered in a uniquely Austrian dialect—so the “translator’s note” and footnotes turned out to be three times the length of the piece itself.

Last year, I established contact with her agent at Rowohlt. then completed sample translations which were enthusiastically received by the author and her agent. Last November, my translations of “Rosamunde” were on display on six-foot panels in an exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York—and there were staged readings from Bambiland at Scena Theater in Washington DC, sponsored by the Austrian Embassy. Another staged reading from Bambiland is scheduled for the HotInk Festival in New York in January 2007. The full text of Bambiland is slated for completion by mid-February, 2007, commissioned by the Goethe Institute in New York.

Several commentators have stated that this author’s work is so culturally-specific that it must first be translated into German. In interviews conducted upon receipt of the Nobel prize, Jelinek commented on the essential “untranslatability” of her work. Asked whether any reader unfamiliar with the uniquely Austrian backdrop of her writing could even begin to grasp it, she said: “Certainly, that is the biggest problem. It is one reason I am so baffled by the receipt of this award—because I am actually a provincial author, working in a very specific way with a very specific language that is incomprehensible even in Germany! I am firmly rooted in the tradition of the Vienna Group, in a line running from the early Wittgenstein through Karl Kraus to the Vienna Group, a literature centered on language that works less with meaning and more with the phonetic power of language, with the sound of language. And that cannot be translated. […] I play with the sound of language,” she said. “That can hardly be translated into another language. Each language has its own face and its own fingerprints, which are not identical with any other language.”

In “The Task of the Translator,” Walter Benjamin addresses the issue of translatability: in his reading, “translatability” is contingent on two factors: whether an “adequate translator will ever be found among the totality of readers” and (more pertinently) whether the nature of the work lends itself to translation. He goes on to say that a work may be essentially translatable even if the task of translating it lies beyond human capacity, which is not to say that it is essential for an essentially translatable work to be translated.

By the author’s own assessment, Jelinek’s works are essentially untranslatable—but at the same time—if for no other reason than by virtue of the imprimatur of the Nobel Prize–it is essential that they be translated. When interviewed by the New York Times in November, 2004, she was asked whether she’d like her work to be more widely read in the United States:

“Yes,” she said, “that would be very nice. Americans would understand my irony and wit because, well, there is still a Jewish culture. Here, and especially in Germany, people hardly understand me because this Jewish world was destroyed by the Nazis. So I’m falling between all stools, as we would say here. People no longer understand my wit, and people in America don’t understand the language in which I am writing.”

The American translator is thus presented with an impossible, but nevertheless essential task: translating the untranslatable.

Already in the early 90s, when the feminist literary journal Trivia published my first translation of Ingeborg Bachmann, I had begun speaking in terms of “trans-posing literature,” and today I realize that this resonates very closely not only with Benjamin’s remarks on translation, but, more importantly, with Jelinek’s statements on the significance of the sound of language in her work. While the sound of language may be untranslatable, it may be possible to trans-pose it–as one might transpose a musical score from one key to another.

In some circles, it is considered bad form for a translator to leave footprints all over an author’s text. In others, however, the opposite is true: for example, the French Canadian feminist translator, Barbara Godard, advances a theory of “womanhandling” a text in translation, stating that:

The feminist translator, affirming her critical difference, her delight in interminable re-reading and re-writing, flaunts the signs of her manipulation of the text. […] The feminist translator immodestly flaunts her signature in italics, in footnotes—even in a preface.

The Canadian feminist translator Luise von Flotow similarly advocates footnoting and prefacing as feminist translation strategies, but I am not especially beholden to translators’ notes, and certainly not to prefaces: footnotes introduce a disruptive element to a literary text not present in the original, and I find little more laborious than commenting on my own translations, as, for example, in a preface—so my strategies for “womanhandling” tend to avoid extraneous commentary in these forms—I flaunt my signature, my fingerprints, my footprints–at times boldly, at times more timidly—between the lines of the text itself.

The nature of Jelinek’s writing is hard to define—she shifts between prose and poetry, incantation and hymn, paean and polemic, dialogue and diatribe. She is a flagrantly, flamboyantly, and—since 2004 at the latest—now famously feminist author: one whose own comments on translation invite the feminist translator to womanhandle the text, to immodestly re-configure it with fingerprints, footprints, signatures and keystrokes. Based on what I have seen of this author’s works, I am convinced that even the most “liberal” of translations is an inadequate vehicle for transmitting their sound and their sense. Radical translation, radical feminist translation is required.

Any act of radicalism involves the perpetual risk of “going too far,” so the act of radical translation must be tempered by some sort of tether. The guidelines I have put in place to temper the radicalism of my translations of Jelinek are the author’s own statements and, equally as “authoritative,” the words of the Swedish Academy. In its announcement for the Nobel prize, the Academy cited the “musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.”

I see my translator’s task, then, in reconstructing this musical flow, these voices, those counter-voices with the same extraordinary linguistic zeal that compelled the Swedish Academy to award this author the most coveted form of acknowledgement available to any artist. Harking back to Benjamin’s “task of the translator”: my task is to liberate Jelinek’s language from its provincial confines, to set it free so that it may reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power to audiences outside Austria. If Jelinek is correct in stating that each language has its own “face” and its own “fingerprints,” then any translation of her work must involve a radical facelift and the translator must be willing (and, by Benjamin’s account, able) to leave fingerprints, footprints and imprints all over the scene of the rhyme.

What I mean by this is perhaps best illustrated by examples from the translations.

The Princess Plays: “The Wall” and “Rosamunde”

“The Wall” and “Rosamunde” are two in a series of 5 dramoletts titled the “Princess Plays,” subtitled “Death and the Maiden,” all of which deal with the constraints placed on women’s lives by the stereotypes—straitjackets, if you will—of corporate consumer culture’s fairytale version of women’s lives.

Let’s begin with some examples from The Wall.

The two main protagonists in The Wall are Ingeborg Bachmann and Sylvia Plath, performing ritual slaughter on a male ram from the underworld. One of the  play’s “invisible” protagonists is Marlen Haushofer, the Austrian author of the 1961 novel, The Wall, present in voice alone and solely by allusion to this novel whose female protagonist awakes one day to find herself cut off from the rest of the world by an invisible wall. The characters of “Inge” and “Sylvia” are spattered in blood, and the play chronicles their conversation as they “work up” this male ram. Much of the dialogue revolves around woman’s traditional role of cleaning up messes and other housewifely tasks, mostly with reference to Haushofer’s invisible glass wall.

The opening line sets the tone more readily in English than in German simply by virtue of a homophonic association not present in the original:

Oh just settle down. It’s not like you’re pulling balls out Uranus, ripping rungs from the ladders of upward motility, those tumescent tubes teeming with sperm cells ready to jump at the chance to finally knock some fertility into us!

Reg dich ab. Das ist nicht Uranos, dem du da den Samen mitsamt seinen Leitern wegreißt, auf denen er steht, um uns endlich fruchtbar zu machen.

This is a classic example of Jelinek’s strategy of “associative streaming”: the “Leiter” to which she refers are the “spermatic ducts”— “narrow muscular tubes” that transfer sperm from the epididymis to the ejaculatory ducts to release sperm in the climax of ejaculation in a process described in medical terms as “motility.” But a “Leiter” in German is also a “ladder”—a homograph called to the fore by Jelinek’s use of the phrase “auf denen er steht.” Here, I have reconstructed Jelinek’s associative streaming by utilizing the play on words in “ripping the rungs from the ladders of upper motility” along the lines of “tumescent tubes teeming with sperm cells.”

Another example:

Double back salto over the fence, up and over the wall you go, and before you know it, you’re falling fast—in any case, it’s the usual case for any case that would fall from the face of the earth should it land in a court anywhere outside the field of psychiatry. That thing we’ve been lusting after all these centuries has itself become obsolete, just as the notion of cognitive dissonance went out of fashion long before the cog ever got stuck in the wheel.

Ein Flic-Flac über den Zaun, rauf auf die Wand, im Fallen dann, wie üblich, alles was der Fall ist, für niemanden sonst ein Fall, außer für die Psychiatrie, so einfach geht das. Das Ding, das wir so lang suchten, ist doch längst überflüssig geworden wie die Erkenntnis an sich schon längst überflüssig geworden ist, bevor sie stattgefunden hat.

My formulation, “just as the notion of cognitive dissonance went out of fashion long before the cog ever got stuck in the wheel” departs radically from the content of the German original. However, it manipulates the “epistemological theory of cognitive dissonance” and alienates idiom much in the same way that the source text does with “Erkenntnistheorien.” The content is essentially irrelevant, but the “aphoristic” nature of the formulation also establishes a connection to the tradition of Wittgenstein and Kraus and participates in the same kind of deconstructive performance and punning present in Jelinek’s original.

Bullshit. You can only look into something once the thing itself is in view. And it’s not necessarily always the same thing! That is to say, if I can describe the thing, let’s say, a wall, as if it were actually there and designed to act as a tool for making some sense of something, as a sort of a tack to take or a tool to tackle some problem, no, as a tack to tackle, no, a tack to be taken to the taxidermist’s rack. Then we could go out and stuff ourselves all by our ourselves.

Blödsinn. Die Anschauung kann doch nur stattfinden, sobald uns ein Gegenstand dafür gegeben ist. Und zwar nicht immer derselbe! Beziehungsweise wenn ich den Gegenstand, die Wand, so beschreiben kann, als wäre er vorhanden und als Gerät bereitgestellt, daß man sich ein bissel Denken abzwacken kann, als Zweck, nein, als Reißzwecke, nein, zum Einwecken. Da können wir uns selber einwecken gehen.

This is a radical facelift on Jelinek’s free-associative play with the sound of language. There is nary a taxidermist in sight in the source text, but the taxidermist’s rack introduced to the text solely on the basis of its phonetic compatibility with the alliterative string of tools, tacks, tackling and takes is a felicitous fit for the German idiom “uns einwecken gehen”—to go “stuff ourselves.”

Another example which is absolutely essential to the task of translating the untranslatable because the “soup” analogy is re-cast and reappears later in the text:

Oh puh-lease, you think I just fell off the turnip truck? Or, as we say in Austria, you think I just floated in here with the noodles in the soup? Squeaky clean windows are so clear you can see right through them. But it beats being clear as noodles swimming in a can of Campbell’s soup with our fate hanging in the ladle if our hungry man husbands can’t handle the taste. Don’t forget, that’s one thing we do have a handle on! And while you might drown in a sea of sorrows, you’ll never land on your can in a can of Campbell’s soup!

Ich bitte dich, gutgeputzte Fenster sind schließlich immer klar wie unsichtbar. Das ist doch viel besser als klar wie die Nudelsuppe, auf der wir jeden Tag unter dem Tosen und Brausen der Maggi-Gischt dahergeschwommen kommen! Ertrinken kann man in der nicht. Unser Schicksal liegt in einem Löffel, wenn es dem Mann nicht schmeckt. Da kennen wir uns doch aus, erinnere dich! Erinnere dich, daß es wenigstens uns Menschen klar sein muß, daß etwas unsichtbar sein kann.

The operative element here is the Austrian idiom: “Mit der Nudelsuppe dahergekommen sein”; in English, “just fell off the turnip truck.” The matter is complicated by Jelinek’s introduction of the brand name “Maggi”—a manufacturer of instant soups that has since merged with Nestle and is also available in the US under the same name. However, a closer “cultural equivalent” of Maggi in the US would be Campbell’s, whose advertising slogan for its “Manhandler” product line was [SING] “How do you handle a hungry man? The Manhandlers” seems tailor-made to accommodate the idea that a woman’s fate hangs in the balance if the dinner served does not suit her hungry man’s tastes. It is at the same time an ideal vehicle for incorporating the image delivered by the Austrian idiom, and thus allows me to incorporate the specifically Austrian flavor of the text without the disruptive element of a footnote.

Another example:

She scrubbed that wall so clean no one could see the thing. ShineRite through and to thine ownself be true! Don’t forget the Ajax, the Comet and the Lysol-Basin-Tub-and-Tile Cleaner, just steer clear of the Soft Scrub, dear.

Sie hat ja diese Wand geputzt, so lang, bis man sie nicht mehr gesehen hat. Tuklar und scheue niemand. Auch Ata, Vim und Zisch, ich meine Cif nicht.

Here, Jelinek comments on the absurdity of a consumer culture that would offer its women more “freedom of choice” with regard to household cleaning supplies than career options: Ata, Vim, Zisch and Cif are brand name cleaning products, as is “Tuklar.” She manipulates the proverbial saying, “Fürchte Gott, tue Recht und scheue niemand.” famously cited, among others, by Friedrich Schiller.  The Shakespearean reference reconstructs this literary allusion, and the brand names have been replaced by their American equivalents. But the dialogue also reveals that one of the protagonists has used the wrong product for scrubbing her wall squeaky clean, presumably because she failed to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the label. In English, I suppose it would amount to using SoftScrub instead of Windex to clean a window.

            I understand there is a volunteer in the audience willing to sing the German version of this line from a well-known German children’s song? [ASK VOLUNTEER TO SING]

Die Affen rasen durch den Wald, der eine macht den andern kalt, wer hat die Kokosnuß, wer hat die Kokosnuß, wer hat die Kokosnuß geklaut?

Felicitously, there is an English-language equivalent ready at hand:

Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, merry, merry king of the bush is he. Stop, Kookaburra, stop Kookaburra, save some scum for me!

Rosamunde:

Already the title of this third in the series of “Princess Plays,” presented the first problem in translation: Rosamunde refers, on the one hand, to the character of “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus” in Franz Schubert’s famous Rosamunde Overture.

[PLAY AUDIO SAMPLE]

But “Rosamunde” is also the title of the Czech folk song, composed in 1927, with words written in 1934, a German text in 1938, and finally, later, in English assigned the title “The Beer Barrel Polka.”  Famously recorded by the Andrews sisters in 1939 and by Bobby Vinton in 1991—perhaps less famously by the Grateful Dead in 1974, by Willie Nelson in 1999, Billy Holiday in 1956, and Luciano Pavarotti in 1994, I’m sure you’ll recognize it even in my rendering:

SING: Roll out the Barrel.

Roll out the barrel, We’ll have a barrel of fun

Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run

Zing Boom Terrara

Join in a glass of good cheer

Now it’s time to roll the barrel

For the gang’s all here (Spoken: Take it away boys!)

So in my English translation, each time the character of Fulvio addresses Rosamunde by name, he says: “Roll out the barrel, Rosamunde.”

Here is another example of how nothing can be taken at face value in a Jelinek text. The character of Fulvio, Rosamunde’s “suitor,” says:

Fulvio: Also ich wäre froh, wenn die ganze Welt schnackselt, dann wären alle in a good mood.

Simple enough for anyone familiar with the Austrian verb “schnackseln,” which means “fool around,” “screw around,” “fornicate.”

What may not be immediately apparent, however, is the political allusion to a statement made by Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis in May 2001 on the nationally broadcast Friedman talk show in which she stated that the people in Africa are dying of AIDS “weil sie zu viel schnackseln, der Schwarze schnackselt gerne/ because they’re all too busy making whoopie, as the Negro is wont to do.”

I have attempted to re-construct this allusion by employing the euphemism “discussing Ugandan affairs” that was originally coined in the 1970s by the British satirical magazine Private Eye.

Fulvio: I’d just as soon see the whole world out there discussing Ugandan affairs—then everyone would be in a good mood.

One additional example  from Rosamunde I consider particularly successful in translation:

O my thighs, my ass, forgive me for making you what you are! Forgive me for having shorn a woman scorned! O the ground where women dare to tread, forgive the fluffs of her feet that missed their cue when the stage was set for her grand entrance! O martyred Maries foraging at my breast, forgive me! Forgive me first and foremost for the fact that you found nothing there! Foreign man, forgive me for becoming your one and only! Foreign man, forgive me for not being there to become your one and only! I’ve done it my own way, may the road I have taken forgive me for the fact that it has always already been a road already taken.

O meine Oberschenkel, mein Po, vergebt mir, daß ich was ihr seid aus euch gemacht hab! Abscheu über Verschmähtwerden, vergib mir! Boden, wo Frauenfuß auftritt, vergib ihm den verpatzten Auftritt! Martern, die mir die Brust durchwühlen, vergebt mir! Daß ihr dort nichts gefunden habt, vergebt mir erst recht! Fremder Mann, vergib mir, daß ich die deine werde! Fremder Mann, vergib mir, daß ich nicht da bin, um die deine zu werden! Ich habe meinen eigenen Weg genommen, der mir bitte vergeben soll, daß er immer schon an eine andre vergeben ist.

Bambiland: Professional Bush-Bashing at the Nobel Prize Level

Jelinek acknowledges Aeschylus’s The Persians  as an important literary antecedent to Bambiland, and she is not the first to have seen in this ancient Greek tragedy telling parallels to the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. In June of 2003, Ellen McLaughlin was commissioned by the National Actors Theatre to do an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Persians in response to the Iraq war, and the National Theatre of Greece recently (September 2006) staged a production of The Persians at the City Center in New York. A reviewer in New York Theatre Wire writes, “watching the production, it is difficult not to hear criticism of the American presence in the Middle East.”  Charles Isherwood’s review in the New York Times reads:

The ruler of a rich and powerful empire leads his countrymen into a disastrous war on foreign soil […]. It seems the guy was acting on advice from bad counselors. And trying to finish some business started by papa, who ruled before him. Ring any bells?

The New York production was performed in Greek, with English titles projected above and to the side of the stage, and the reviewer writes: “you might expect the experience to be like listening to a long series of speeches in a foreign tongue.”

But one cannot come away from Jelinek’s Bambiland saying “It’s Greek to me,” for she does not satisfy herself with allusion and innuendo, and describes the play as the product of a “press that’s all dressed up like an emperor with no new clothes.”

Bambiland is a scathing indictment of the policies of the Bush administration—it cites Bush, Blair, Cheney and Halliburton by name—and at the same time implicates the international news media as co-conspirator in the crime of outrageous proportion that is the Iraq war.

I freely concede that my interest in this piece is more political than literary. I stand together with the two penultimate recipients of the Nobel Prize in Literature in their critique of the current administration in Washington. Elfriede Jelinek, in a November 2004 interview with the New York Times stated:

I consider the current presidency dangerous to the world. I am really afraid of Bush, actually less of him than of the deputies standing in the shadows behind him. Compared to their activities, even Thomas Pynchon’s paranoid conspiracy theories are just children’s books.

Similarly, Harold Pinter, the 2005 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature stated, already in 2003:

The US is really beyond reason now. It is beyond our imagining to know what they are going to do next and what they are prepared to do. There is only one comparison: Nazi Germany. […] Nazi Germany wanted total domination of Europe and they nearly did it. The US wants total domination of the world and is about to consolidate that.

So, I translate Bambiland with all the “extraordinary linguistic zeal” of political conviction, in the interest of revealing this society’s clichés and their subjugating power as we experience them today in “real time” here in America at “ground zero” of this utterly contemporary tragedy.  I have described this task of translation as “professional Bush-bashing at the Nobel Prize Level,” and conclude this presentation with a brief reading from that translation.

So where did all that oil go, unspent? Burning. Burning. Explosives set round the rigs where the oil wells up, where it goes up in flames and goes to waste. […]You can set fire to our homes, set fire to our icons, just keep your fires off our oil and our television sets, these are ours to keep, our altar—one that cannot disappear without a trace, for it is itself the trace! The tracer bullets that let us see in the dark. Let us see in the dark the way lightning strikes straight into the hailstorm of enemy fire.

Wo ist jetzt das ganze Öl hin, ungenutzt? Es brennt. Es brennt. Sprengstoff rund um die Quellen, wo das Öl sich staut und nutzlos verbrennt. […]An unser Haus können Sie den Brand legen, an unsere Götterbilder können Sie auch den Brand legen, aber nicht an unser Öl und nicht an unseren Fernseher, den behalten wir, unsren Altar, der darf nicht spurlos fort, der ist doch die Spur! Der ist unsre Leuchtspurmunition, damit wir im Dunkeln sehen können. Damit wir auch im Dunkeln sehen, wie  einschlägt der Blitz im Strom des feindlichen Heers.

[…]

They’re no longer content with dashing together the bronze prows of their cumbersome seafaring galleys. […] Those who believe in God. But it’s not enough for them. They’re out to free the fatherland. But they can’t because […] we question religion and we question the stones and we question the sand and we question the water, we alone know God and have realized that we want nothing to do with Him, we who can lead no one into temptation, we who are tempted by images alone. As soon as we walk in the door to the house, the first thing we do is turn on the tube. Seductive eyewash. The show must go on. And it does. Immediately. They never leave us without a trace, these images of our deity that we see, the ones only we can see there on the glowing screen. So we’ll just march in there and strip those people of their faith, and we’ll finally force these icons of ours down their throats, and that’ll be that. All’s well that ends well. Then those people will be washed up once and for all.

Schnabelstöße gegen unlenksame Schiffe, das spielen sie heute nicht mehr. […]Wo sie doch an Gott glauben. Das genügt ihnen aber nicht. Sie wollen das Vaterland befreien. Können sie aber nicht, denn nur wir halten dem Verführer, der uns nur aufhalten würde, stand und stellen die Religion in Frage und die Steine stellen wir in Frage und den Sand stellen wir in Frage und das Wasser stellen wir in Frage, nur wir kennen Gott und haben erkannt, wir wollen ihn nicht, wir Verführer von niemand, wir Verführer des Bildes allein. Wenn wir ins Haus gekommen, dann drehn wir das Bild sofort auf. Das muß funktionieren. Und es funktioniert auch. Sofort. Nie spurlos fort unserer Gottheit Bilder, die wir dort sehn, die nur wir dort sehn auf dem leuchtenden Schirm. So, wir entfernen dieses Volk vom Glauben, geben ihm dafür endlich unser Bild und aus. Dann wir es gut sein. Dann wird  dieses Volk vollkommen am Ende sein.

[…]

The British people, the American people, for example, who set out on their crusades. They’re the ones, hording the riches in their gold-gilded mansions. But of course they want even more. They always want even more. If you got it, you got it. If you got it, flaunt it. But not everyone who wants to will get some. Those who get some will not get it from the molly-coddled masses, and that is why they’ll get some. Winner takes all. Do you know the one I’m talking about? Have you ever heard the name of that corporation, Halliburton, and the name Cheney, the High Almighty Lord, scion of so-and-so or such-and-such, I know not what, son of a mother, or the mother of all sons I suppose, and he’s been battling the emotional whirlwinds of wishy-washy weal and woe since the day he was born. Dick Cheney. But his weal and woe won’t win. Halliburton will win, the corporation that can even build cages in Cuba, well, even I could manage to build a cage if I had to, but it would barely be built tough enough to contain a rabbit, if that; they managed to build Corpus Christi in Texas, too. And the place sure lives up to its name! He’s just going to rebuild everything, Lord of the Energy Industry, Lord Chairman of the Board, Lord of the Cooked Books, Lord of Cronyism. But Cronyism is an Arab thing. You can bet your bottom dollar on it: this company will come out the winner no matter who actually wins this war.

Die des Engländer- und Amerikanervolks, die auf Heerfahrt zogen, zum Beispiel. Sie sinds, reichen Horts, goldbergende Burgen. Aber sie wollen natürlich noch mehr. Sie wollen immer noch mehr. Wer hat, der hat. Wer kann, der kann. Nicht jeder, der will, der bekommt. Dieser bekommt, nicht aus verweichlichtem Volk, deshalb er bekommt. Der bekommt. Kennen Sie den schon? Haben Sie gehört den Namen der Firma Halliburton und den Namen Cheney, den heiligen Herrn, den Sproß von ich weiß nicht was oder wem, gewiß von einer Mutter, und seither kämpft er gegen die zahlreichen weichen Gefühle. Dick Cheney. Aber seine Gefühle werden nicht gewinnen. Es wird gewinnen Halliburton, die Firma, sogar Käfige auf Kuba kann sie bauen, na, das würde sogar ich notfalls noch schaffen, einen Käfig bauen, aber höchstens Kaninchen hielte der stand, Corpus Christi in Texass haben sie ja auch gebaut, das haben sie gekonnt. Das hat seinen Namen verdient. Er wird das alles wieder aufbauen, der Herr von der Energiewirtschaft, der Herr Vorstandsvorsitzende, der Herr der Bilanzfälschungen, der Herr der Vettern.  Aber Vettern gibts nur in Arabien. Drauf könnt ihr euch verlassen, daß diese Firma gewinnt, egal wer gewinnt.

[…]

They just hauled their asses on in there, like a walking mirage of the avenger incarnate, into a foreign land, where many of them bit the dust in the sands, and now you’re saying they’re not going to get anything out of it? Well. I told you so. They’ve got to get their contracts, and none too few. They haven’t gotten any yet. But they’re still negotiating hard. The construction companies will come running after the spectacular real estate, sister concubines and condominiums, two of a kind. They’ll come running, one after the other, with strict rules to determine who’s first in line. I told you so. They landed the deals, founded the fatherlands—by luck of the draw—no, it wasn’t luck, it was the law of the land: connections, lobbyists, family ties, tradition, who gives a hoot how, at any rate, the first ones in line got the fattest contracts. The purchase order is already blowing in the wind like a willow, but not a weeping one. First come, first served.

Da haben sie sich als leibhaft Trugbild des Rächers ins fremde Land, in dessen Sand sie zu mehreren beissen mußten, geschleppt, und die sollen jetzt gar nichts kriegen? Na eben. Ich künd es euch. Die müssen auch Aufträge kriegen, und nicht zu knapp. Noch haben sie keine. Aber sie verhandeln noch fest. An Schönheit sonder Makel, Schwestern gleichen Stamms, werden die Baufirmen antanzen. Eine nach der anderen, und welche zuerst, das ist streng geregelt. Ich künd es euch. Als Heimat hatten sie – durch Los erlangt – nein, nicht durch Los, durch Gewohnheitsrecht, Beziehungen, Lobbies, Verwandtschaft, Tradition, ist ja Wurst, also erlangt haben die ersten jedenfalls die dicksten der Aufträge.  Der Bestellzettel biegt sich schon wie eine Weide, aber keine, die trauert. Wer zuerst kommt, mahlt zuerst.

I.am.Lilly.M.Ruh

Without some preliminary qualifiers, this story is likely to ruffle some feathers.

Some autobiographical background: My birth name was Lillian Mae Friedberg, but my father’s name was Richard Palmer Ruh, and he didn’t give me his name until I was 12, about a year after I first met him at a place called Sunburst Youth Homes (formerly the Winnebago Indian School) in Neillsville, WI. I had been sent there in the aftermath of a disrupted adoption. When I was 9, my 6-year-old brother and I had been removed from the home of my alcoholic Indian mother and placed with a prominent wealthy, white Republican couple who could not have children of their own and wanted to adopt. It wasn’t even a “foster to adopt” situation–Judy and Wayne Wall were planning to adopt my brother and me. As a healthy, white-presenting sister-and-brother pair, we were hot commodities on the adopt-on-the-cheap market.

But even at age ten I was acutely aware of the economic atrocity involved in serving gourmet dinners to the owners of the foundry where my mother worked third shift at minimum wage, of collecting Tricia Nixon and Ted Cox from the airport, and hosting them in our home before standing the next day on the street beside a late-model Chevy station wagon plastered with Nixon swag shouting “Nixon Now! Nixon Now! Nixon now more than ever we need Nixon now!” Judy Wall was local Chair of the Committee to Re-Elect the President, aptly acronymized C.R.E.E.P. Republicans are the unwitting masters of self-deprecating irony. I remain convinced that this experience was the imprint for a lifelong campaign to balance the scales of economic injustice at every opportunity that presented itself to me.

Suffice it to say that things between me and Judy Wall did not go well. She was an elementary school English teacher, and she loved, loved, loved my little brother. She had him enrolled in the school where she was employed and sent me to another one. Before long, she called the social worker to come and get rid of the wild child no one in her circle of friends and associates knew how to handle to say: come and take this one off my hands. I’ll keep the boy, but this girl? She’s got to go.

Richard Palmer Ruh and his wife Cathryn Thayer Ruh were houseparents at the Indian School turned Youth Home after the State of Wisconsin had finished killing enough Indians to save the men inside them that they no longer had enough Indian kids to fill the boarding school. Both Richard and Cathy were strict taskmasters, each in their own way. I remember one time, when Richard busted me smoking cigarettes before I’d obtained the necessary “smoking permit” that was issued to residents of the school after age 13 with parental permission. He hauled me off to a musty, dimly lit room in the basement of the main building, forced me to smoke a pack of Camel straights, then made me go outside and run 20 laps around the main building. This one:

Richard decided he wanted to adopt me–despite my many flaws. I may have been Raggedy as a double A-8-7-6, but he rarely had to “let” me win at cribbage. I cut a mean hand. Fair and square. Richard and Cathy were young. Too young, perhaps, to take on the handful that I was. But they took me on nevertheless, and, the day after they left to move to Madison–where he would be attending law school–the social worker called me in to her office and broke the news: Richard and Cathy were taking me with them. They wanted to adopt me. In order to make the transition easier, I would be called Lilly M. Ruh. And that is how I came into my name.

A recent op-ed by Kali Holloway in the DailyBeast, Stop Telling Me Trust Fund Kids are Financial Wizards , is ironically barricaded behind a paywall. But if you’re clever and quick enough with the Apple+C key, you can capture the subhead before the article disappears behind the glaring pay-up-or-die-You-Gravy-Sucking -Pig sign: It reads “millions of poor folks have ambition, intelligence, and drive. But they did a much shittier job of choosing parents wealthy enough to grease the slide to success.”

Having kids is risky business. You never know how they’re going to turn out, and sometimes–all your efforts be damned–you end up with kids who are just lousy human beings. Kids who can make your life miserable. And–I speak from experience on this one–the world is chock full of lousy parents. I didn’t get to chose my parents, but I consider myself lucky that my dad actually CHOSE me. He picked me, above many others, to take home with him and give me a name. Lilly M Ruh. It’s true: I am Lilly M. Ruh. My first Social Security card was issued in that name, when I took a job as the first female newspaper “boy” to deliver The Wisconsin State Journal to residents of Madison, WI.

What’s in a name?

I suppose not much, if the name is Jane Doe or John Jacob Jingleheimer Smith. But as the case of Barack Hussein Obama made clear (at the latest), a name can say a lot. It can be twisted and turned into something it’s not. And that was indeed the case with the name Lillian M. Friedberg. Excepting those brief few years in which I was entitled to bear my real father’s name, I was burdened by the cultural-historical and socio-economic weight of my birth father’s name: Friedberg. For most of my life, simply by virtue of my name, I have been subject to virulent anti-Semitism as one of those “Greenberg-People.” The Goldbergs. The Steinbergs. Whatever. This dynamic contributed substantially to putting an end to not one, put two career paths. I’ve discussed one of those incidents here. The dean in that story delivered her ultimate deathblow in a conversation between us, held in a crowded hallway of the college, with students passing to and fro between classes when I confronted her because she was ignoring my requests for a meeting to discuss changing my name in the course catalog from “Friedberg” to “Banks.” I had long since submitted all requisite documentation for the name change. The change from Friedberg to Banks was evident on my payroll account, in Blackboard, everywhere except in the course catalogue. That is, everywhere except in my public face at the school–a school that often hosted events by the notoriously anti-semitic Louis Farrakhan. It was clear: the dean wanted me to be marked as a Jew. I have her statement on tape: “You need to understand. You were born Friedberg, and you will be Friedberg until the day you die. It’s about our people, your culture. Your people called you Friedberg before they called you Lillian.”

So who the hell do I think I am to trade in the same stereotypes about Jews here here in this story about my father who was not a Jew, but whose name happens to have conveniently rhymed with Jew? Much in the same way literary artists of every stripe employ stereotypes in service of exploding them, that is what I have chosen to do here. In the attempt to convey the aura of “Jewishness” and the attendant anti-semitism that has marked most of my life, I have chosen to use the name “Richard Palmer, the Jew” for my father, Richard Palmer Ruh. Color me catty for calling Cathy “Katty”, but hey, it’s what she was. What’s behind the name of the openly autobiographical protgagonist, “Salia (Malaikum)” is a subject for another day. Place names remain unchanged, and to the best of my knowledge, historically accurate. And my cats: Malcolm and LaSalle appear in this story as themselves.

As a “ballad,” this narrative deploys literary devices common to the ballad form: strong associations with childhood, simple language, repetition (often in three’s), dialogue, third-person narration, etc. At the time of its writing, I was teaching students in my humanities classes about the ballad form, using formal ballads, like Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Ballad of Rudolph Reed” and her “Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” But it was Randall Kenan’s “The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall” that inspired me to experiment with elements of the ballad form to tell this rather disturbing tale.

The title carries a double entendre: the human remains obviously refer to my father’s remains, stuck as they are on a shelf in his brother’s garage. But this is also a verbal phrase: the human remains. In the end, it’s the human that remains. That survives, to live or to die. To thrive, to strive. Whatever the case may be, it is the human that remains in the end.

The Human Remains: Ballad of a Lost Bird

If I could play all the memories in the neck of my guitar, I would write a song called Señorita with the necklace of tearsPaul Simon

Not until she returned from the animal shelter, while steadying herself against the kitchen sink, did tears start streaming down Salia’s face.

“It was just a cat, and you did the right thing.” She wiped a snot dribble dangling from her nose with the back of her hand. She glanced toward the basement where her three-year-old tabby was sniffing at floorboards beneath the door. That night, he’d held a vigil of whimper-whine that didn’t end until she gingerly placed the empty cat carrier on her gleaming hardwood kitchen floor that afternoon.

“She’s gone, LaSalle, forget about it. She’s not coming back.”

Her husband let her keep the animal in the basement overnight on the promise that she’d drop it off at the humane society the next day. It had a good shot at adoption. It was young. Pretty. People-primed. Salia hoped it would not be adopted by someone, only to again be abandoned, left to scavenge the streets for food, shelter, water, the comfort of a welcoming lap. Or worse. Euthanized.

Salia knew she’d done more than others might. She’d done a good thing, but it wasn’t what she’d meant to do. She meant to keep the cat. She meant to let it live, and live long, in the lap of luxury of her home.

But Salia’s husband put the kibosh on her plans.

“Two cats in this house—no more.”

“But, baby, look at this cat—it’s gorgeous.”

“No. I said. That means Non! Nein! Nopity. And I’m not backing down, capisce?”

Salia draped the cat over her shoulder like a shawl hand-stitched for a fancydance, hoping her husband would suspend his sobersided views long enough to see the magical way they fit together hand in garden glove, “This cat is not going to survive the streets.”

“I said no.”

Salia capitoed, but not really.

The cat had wandered like a lost bird into Salia’s garden at dusk. Meowing ferociously. Uncertain whether it was feral or friendly, whether a tom on the prowl or a female in heat, she approached cautiously before making any untoward moves—for all she knew, the cat could be rabid. But it wasn’t: it was just hungry, hungry as hell. And friendly as Mr. Rogers or Deputy Police Chief Brenda Lee Johnson closing a case. There was magic in its eyes, charm in the salt-and-pepper stripe beaded into the fur of its breastbone like a necklace of tears.

Verlorner Vogel,” Salia’s thoughts switched to German, “Komm’ mal her, Kätzchen,” her tentative hand outstretched for the sniffing, smelling like a swell of hope. The cat, its back arched, tail attentive and twitching, brushed Salia’s bare shins, then rolled over, twisting, twirling, exposing its private parts.

Salia was smitten. This was a she-cat.

“Hang on, señorita-sita ….” Salia bounded up the front stoop stairs, disappeared behind the door, dashed into the kitchen to fetch a box of Friskies and a bowl.

 She’d never taken in a female. As a high school freshman, she’d rescued a young black male from teenage boys tossing him in the air on the playground like the hacked-off skull of an Indian kicked around in ad hoc soccer games at first Thanksgiving feasts. Ten years and two continents of travel later, she’d brought Mr. Malcolm Shabazz home from the humane society around Halloween, when black cats are euthanized to spare them the hazard of such boys-will-be-boys pranks. Mr. Shabazz with his Hemingway-mitten-kitten claws and by-any-means-necessary mien: that Malcolm Cat who—only now, nigh on two decades hence—deigned to seek comfort on her lap, mostly at inauspicious times, like while she was grading papers, or juggling bi-lingual dictionaries on uncrossed knees because there was no room on her ever-cluttered desk for the drafts, the dictionaries and that sable-black-going-gray cat.

Later came LaSalle—the gray-and-white domestic tabby with a salmon-speckled snout who’d leaped into her arms from beneath the trembling leaf of an early spring hosta at the local garden center some three years ago, back when the garden was new and the house not yet a home.

But by the time she bolted two-steps-a-pop back to the kitchen after some fresh water for the cat who’d wandered into her garden like a lost bird at dusk, once the cat lapped up enough of it to wash down the first real taste of food she’d had in days, possibly weeks, and curled up on Salia’s lap, Salia was sold.

The cat was accustomed to the creature comforts of food, water and a welcoming lap. She’d been abandoned, left to fend for herself on the mean streets of Salia’s southside Chicago ‘Hood. No sooner had Salia returned with the bowl of kibble than the case became clear. The she-cat downed star-shaped morsels of Purina with the full force of a Hoover upright.

The cat was as starving for attention as for food and water; it needed a home. But Salia also needed the cat. Had she known that, she’d have defied her husband’s orders. Instead, she settled for stroking the cat in the sultry summer night heat of her front stoop—cooing, cuddling, as the cat purred contentment, cradled in the sheer cotton folds of the sundress crumpled in Salia’s lap. That hum of hope stirred something Salia had long denied inside her.

Standing at the sink the next day, those stirrings of hope trickled down her sun-burnished cheeks into the drain. A scant thirteen hours after the animal had slipped through the gap in her glossy brown wrought iron gate, Salia found herself being buzzed in to the dingy gray door of a rundown hell-hole in the wall, surrounded by board-ups, with a faded sign that read “Animal Welfare League.” She half hoped the door wouldn’t open. As the intake process drew to an end, after Salia coaxed the cat from the cat carrier, but before she could hand it over to a volunteer who seemed kind enough, but whose foreboding look spoke volumes—one last swipe of the iPhone, “Honey, I’m standing here at this godforsaken shelter with this cat….”

Salia didn’t want to do this.

 His tone unwavering as extra-firm tofu thawing on the kitchen counter: “I said ‘no,’ and nothing you can say will change my mind.”

She plunked the phone into her purse, placed the cat on the counter, comforted her one last time. Another volunteer came in, plastic pink collar band in hand. Salia wondered: Pink? On the website for the Animal Welfare League, the cats were wearing red collar bands. Was it like the difference between a yellow Star of David, a pink or black triangle, or yellow inverted black to designate a race defiler?

Salia had no idea.

One more helping of hope against hope, another look at the lady behind the counter, then Salia signed the dotted line, confirming that she’d released a stray to the Animal Welfare League at 63rd and Wabash….”Not to worry,” the lady said, “this is only an intake station.” The cat would be transported to the adoption center in Chicago Ridge.

“Would you let me know if she tests positive for feline leukemia?”

“She won’t be tested before she’s adopted, but she looks fine.”

The answer trailed behind her in the slim shred of hope Salia dared harbor before she exited through the drab door and returned to the blistering heat of the ‘Hood. She rolled up the windows, closed the sunroof, blasted the air, and drove home hating hope. Hating hope altogether. Hating the dread of it, hating every shred of it. Hope, so easily dashed, was a dastardly thing. Hope, in its deficiency, a luxury Salia couldn’t afford. Fuck hope. Hope hurt like hell when it was but a ramshackle hell-hole in the wall. Salia knew: she’d been that cat’s only hope. And all she could do was leave her there alone with that last scrap of hope. And leave, alone, with a hole shot in her own.

Salia drove home in silence, with the open door of the cat carrier glaring at her from the passenger seat, swinging back on itself with a clank at every bump in the pothole-pocked inner city street.

Only in the stifling 97-degree heat of the un-air-conditioned spread of her kitchen did it dawn on her. The realization crept up slowly, but once it did, she knew. She was damned to remember. She could forget about forgetting. Because this wasn’t about the cat. It was about Salia. Salia and her father.

Salia’s father, Richard Palmer, was a big man. 6’ 4”, 250 lbs., in his better days, maybe more, perhaps a little less later in life, when he died without a sound. Without a sound or a soul in the world to hear his scream fall on deaf ears. No one but Salia herself. Her father was born without a care in the world and died without an ounce of hope in his heart.

He was a formidable frame of a man, broad-shouldered, tall, dark, with a booming voice and large—no, gargantuan—southpaw palms Salia knew never would have hit her, were it not for the woman he married, a petite, big-tittied brunette named Katty Tayler Payless: “Katty T.” That’s what they called her back in Freeland, Michigan—in the Tittawabawassee Township—where she hailed from a beet farming family of modest means who worked land stolen from the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi on territory ceded to the federal government in the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819. Sucking blood from the beets, they worked the land dry to the bone in their drive to keep up with the Jones’s—and catch up with the Dows.

But Payless was hell-bent on rising above her small station in life to become a baron of industry, whether captain or king. Even if it meant bankrupting or breaking anyone who stood in her way, she was bound to become a Bancroft.

Behind her back, she was called “Katty the Shrew” because that’s what she was. She was a shrew, shrew, shrew, through and through, she was a shrew. And a shrewd one. But no one dared say it to her face for fear of offending Richard Palmer, the Jew, a man whose love for Katty Tayler Payless the Shrew was as true as true was true. Truly, truly Richard Palmer the Jew’s love was true.

Except Richard wasn’t really a Jew. It’s just what the townsfolk called him because he happened to be one of the richest men in the Tri-County area where the townfolk traded in stereotypes and trash-talk in Friday night fish fries at the supper club. Richard’s father was a shareholder in Dow Chemical; his sister, heir apparent by marriage to the Exxon-Mobile estate. Katty Tayler Payless knew who she would marry, and she knew just as well why. Because Katty knew if you wanted to get richer, richer than anyone you knew, you knew you had to marry Richard Palmer the Jew.

Richard and Katty met in the late sixties, on the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan, a hotbed of anti-Vietnam War protests, where the first SDS-organized teach-ins were staged in 1965. Richard wasn’t openly opposed to the war. Not at first. But he was a man whose hackles were raised by the slightest whiff of injustice. And the 1960s air of America was thick with the stench of it.

Richard Palmer was not her biological father. In adoption records procured on medical grounds ten years following her birth mother’s death, she’d learned that the name on her birth certificate was the “presumed” father: technically, Salia was “illegitimate.” Her mother, an urban Indian with all the trimmings—8th-grade education, severe alcoholism, chronic depression, advanced periodontal disease, suicidal ideations (and habitual attempts)—claimed the name was legit, but only by marital rape. It was a mystery Salia never felt compelled to solve. All Salia knew was that ever since she’d wandered into his life as a stray, Richard Palmer was the only man she’d ever called “Dad”.

At age nine, Salia was taken in for adoption by a wealthy, white Republican couple: an elementary school teacher who was local Chair of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (C.R.E.E.P.) and her philandering Marlboro-man husband who was more committed to his horses and his whores than to his wife or the two kids they took in after years of failed attempts at having children of their own. The DCFS agent had pried her, kicking and screaming, from the closet of the tenement apartment her birth mother called home. Her brother didn’t put up a fight.

As an adult, Salia would wonder why she’d fought so hard to stay with her drunken, dysfunctional mom. Why her brother had not. Maybe he was content with the basics: food, water, a welcoming lap. In the end, this much she knew: that welcoming lap was the one thing the C.R.E.E.P.-people gave her brother, but could not afford to give her.

Three years after they were removed from their mother’s home, Salia scored in the 99th percentile on the Iowa Basics. In fifth grade, her vocabulary registered at high-school-sophomore level. That summer she was shipped off to a former Indian boarding school then transitioning into a residential treatment center for “troubled youth” because by the time 1974 rolled around, there weren’t enough bona fide Indians left to keep calling the place a ‘home for Indians’. The involuntary sterilization of Indian women that continued into the late 1970s was only part of the problem. By the time Salia arrived at the place, a pitched battle between the Wisconsin Indians (HoChunk mostly) and the State forced the place to change its name.

Salia wasn’t sure what anyone knew about her Indian ancestry beyond the euphemistic description of her birth mother as “dark-complected” in adoption records: loosely translated from the politically indirect idiom of the 1970s to mean “not quite white.” What Salia did know, from going back at fifty-plus to ask that first foster mom why she sent her away, was that no one knew what to do with the girl who always jumped from her desk, or leaped to the front of the line, who blurted out answers before questions were asked, who asked questions they couldn’t answer and who was therefore “too much to handle.”

On the phone, “So why didn’t you put me ahead a grade? Or two?”

“We were afraid you’d blame us if it didn’t work out.”

But Salia never blamed anyone but herself. It cost her forty years and twenty grand in therapy to work through the trauma the first half of her life had been. Sometimes she wondered what her out-of-pocket costs would’ve been had she been sent to a boarding school for gifted children instead of to the one place guaranteed to put her on the road to failure. Salia had been “sent up” for being too big for their britches, too bold for their bootstraps, too heavy and too heady to handle, too smart for their own good. Salia was not what the C.R.E.E.P.-people signed up for.

She never learned why her little brother hadn’t resisted removal from their mother’s home. He died before she could ask—killed at seventeen in a car crash, driving the pickup his adoptive mom bought him, with a blood alcohol count that exceeded the legal limit in the state of Texas. Salia lost her brother twice—the day they kept him, but sent her away, and the day he died. In the end she figured, “Hey, serial re-homing may be a bitch, but it beat being dead.” Still, there were days she wasn’t entirely convinced.

Salia knew the youth home was a bridge to nowhere. And it would have been had it not been for Richard Palmer the Jew.

Richard and Katty were house parents at “the Home”—that’s what locals in the town that housed the place called it. Salia wasn’t too much for Richard Palmer’s hands to handle. And, while it may not have been what he signed up for, the bond between them grew that first year: cribbage matches they played while other girls in the unit spat over games of spades. Math he taught, and strategy: when to hold a hand of sevens and eights you were dealt and when to stack the crib with jacks and queens.

Richard Palmer was accepted to law school in the state capital. By the time their resignation was announced, Salia had an inkling.

“What if they took you with them?”

She barely dared think it, but the thought kept crossing her mind. With the guileless naïveté of a sixth-grader born without a hope and all the care in the world, Salia succumbed to these wild imaginings.

She knew Richard Palmer couldn’t stand the thought of leaving her to fend for herself in the mean straits of “the system.” Richard Palmer had meant to adopt her. But Katty T. put the kibosh on his plans.

On the Palmers’ last day as house parents, Salia was summoned to the social worker’s office.

“Dick and Katty want to adopt you.”

She would be discharged one month later. To facilitate the transition to life on the outside, she would officially adopt the Palmer name from the start. Salia Palmer. Had a nice ring to it. It would eliminate the need for awkward explanations about a name change once the adoption was formalized. When she moved into their home, she was to start calling them “Mom” and “Dad” instead of Dick and Katty. She had no problem with the “dad” part, but calling Katty Tayler Payless the Shrew “Mom” would take some getting used to. It seemed a small price to pay.

Katty T. was OCD before the condition entered the DSM as a disorder: a mite-sized speck staining the bathroom floor upon inspection of Saturday’s chores meant Salia had to scrub the floor with a toothbrush. One streak left on the mirror of Salia’s side of the Jack-and-Jill bathroom meant Salia would spend her Saturday doing windows.

The institutional policy for monitoring teen pregnancies at the “home” was that all post-onset-of-menses females had to report to house parents the first day of their periods, and were rationed tampons daily until the blood flow ceased. It was demeaning enough in an institutional setting. But here, in the adolescent, white-upper-middle-class world of eighth-grade prom dresses and lunchroom popularity contests, it was devastating. So Salia started stealing tampons from Katty’s cupboard beneath the sink rather than line up for the monthly tampon ration. It wasn’t long before Katty T. began counting tampons and called Salia to the carpet: why had Salia quit reporting her period? Salia had no words to explain the humiliation for a teenager trying to settle into normalcy having thus become embroiled in the drama of her mom’s missing tampon count. She shrugged, her head hung in shame, “I dunno.”

And she wasn’t lying. She didn’t know. Why. Why bother to lie about something so silly? Maybe the silliness of it was the problem. It was something Salia never had time for.

Richard Palmer wouldn’t have needed to work his way through school. But Dow’s production of Agent Orange put him at odds with his shareholder father. Richard refused his father’s help and sold Paymaster check-writing machines while Katty spent her time counting tampons, spots on the bathroom mirror, and dust bunnies under Salia’s bed.

The Paymaster-sales income wouldn’t have been enough to afford everything he’d liked to provide his wife and daughter, but Richard could drive a hard bargain as sure as he could stack a crib, so he hammered out a deal with a local guitar store owner. One Christmas morning, Salia woke to a high-end Yamaha guitar, a Paul Simon songbook and a year’s worth of private lessons. Her earnings as a paper delivery girl covered new sets of strings and songbooks: Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Judy Collins, John Denver, Baez and Bobby D. Bows of angel hair; poems, prayers, promises; things she could believe in—sunny days she thought would never end.

Salia took refuge in song. She practiced, practiced, practiced, playing sounds of squandered resistance in pocketfuls of memories, such were the promises. Songs she wrote with words that tore and strained to rhyme. Followed by moonshadows, pausing to check dials on mended roads where a lot of nice things turn bad, where boys with moons and stars walked through ruins wondering where the children played, Salia sang and sang. But the fighter still remained.

Lie-la-lie. Lie-la-lie-la-lie-la-lie.

Katty couldn’t stand the sound of Salia’s songs. Marry our fortunes together? There was but one fortune to be had here, and it would go before the grace of no one but Payless herself.

You couldn’t say Salia defied Katty’s orders that day. She’d merely taken the shortcuts kids take.

Katty’s directive had been clear: “You will not pick up that guitar until this room is clean.”

Salia stuffed everything in the closet, made the bed, then sat on the blue-and-white floral pattern of its spread and began playing her guitar. Katty walked in with that strident white-gloved-determination in her step, threw open the closet door and flew into a rage.

“This is not what I call clean. I told you to clean your room. And I told you you would not be picking up that guitar until it was clean.”

Salia kept singing,

like emptiness in harmony, I need someone to comfort me-e-ee…..”

“Did you hear what I said?”

There are no words I can use…because the meaning…”

“Are you listening?”

Still leaves for you to choose…”

“I told you to put down that guitar and clean this room.”

And I couldn’t stand to let them be abused by you….”

You. Salia stopped, let the pick fall, closed the songbook, but kept the guitar firmly seated on her knee, her right hand gripping the sound hole, teeth sunk in the hand of things she couldn’t give up just yet. Salia said nothing. And, while she may not have known it then, she certainly did now, the look she gave Katty Tayler Payless said: We all eat it once in a while.
Bitch.

That look alone was enough to set off the shrew. She lunged at the guitar, yanked with all her might to wrest it from Salia’s lap. From the muscular 90-degree angle of her bent elbow and the firm grip of her left thumb reaching in G-chord fashion over the third fret of the guitar’s neck. They wrestled for control of that old guitar Richard Palmer the Jew had placed beneath the tree for his daughter.

Looking back, Salia couldn’t remember who was left holding the guitar in the end. It didn’t matter. After the stand-off, Richard Palmer came home, retreated with his wife to the bedroom where he received a blow-by-blow account. That night, Richard Palmer beat the shit out of Salia and called it a “spanking.”

Standing at her kitchen sink revisiting the incident, Salia couldn’t shake the sense that the blows dealt that day were intended for Katty T. more than for her.

That summer, the adoption fell through: another “home,” another set of “parents,” another new life, another second chance. Second chance? To the 14-year old Salia, it felt more like three strikes and you’re out. Payless had squandered whatever hope any well-intentioned future foster mom may have had at Salia’s welcoming lap.

When Salia’s husband came home that night to find his wife blubbering at the sink, she told him the whole story.

That Saturday morning, he came around.

“You can go get that cat.”

“Really?! …” Salia danced in delight, hugged her husband and spent the rest of the day trying to track down the cat. She called the Animal Welfare League on Wabash where she’d left it, but it was too late. They were closed for the weekend. She got through to one of the attendants who told her she should contact Diane on Tuesday, after the Labor Day holiday. On Sunday, she called the Chicago Ridge site. They had seen neither hide nor hair of number 5Y1207, but assured her that the cat should still be at the intake site.

A week had passed since the day at the shelter.

“How long do they keep them?”

“As long as they’re healthy. ”

“But she hasn’t been transferred?”

“We have no record of an animal with that number, but another shelter may have picked it up.”

On the way in to her 8 o’clock class, she called the shelter on Wabash:

“You probably don’t remember, but I left a stray cat there last week because my husband wouldn’t let me keep her. He changed his mind, so we’d like to adopt cat number 5Y1207. Can you please begin processing the adoptionas soon as possible?”

            “Let me check the animal’s status and get back to you.”

            Then the return call came from the Animal Welfare League. “This is Diane calling about animal number 5Y1207. I’m sorry, but the cat showed signs of distemper and was euthanized.”

            “Signs of distemper? What do you mean, ‘signs of distemper’? Was she tested?”

            “We can’t afford to test…”

            Salia interrupted Diane mid-sentence, “I understand, thank you. Thank you very much.”

Her thoughts trailed off to the day she’d last seen her father.

            Following the incident with the guitar, she’d been transferred from one temporary foster home to another, spent a stint with her birth mother, did time in the county jail, in maximum security juvenile detention, then landed again at the upstate youth home and from there, was taken in by a social worker. As a high school senior she totaled the social worker’s car and was thrown out again, involuntarily declared an emancipated minor.

Working as a waitress to supplement public assistance money she received her senior year, Salia racked up excessive absences. But neither her grades nor her SAT scores suffered: even by pre-“Striver” standards, Salia was at the top of her graduating class, and was accepted to a nearby liberal arts college. Then the principal called her into his office a week before graduation: she had accrued too many absences to graduate. They would be withholding her diploma.

Salia didn’t know what to do but call home. She picked up the phone and dialed the number she still knew by heart.

“Dad? It’s me. I know it’s been a long time….” Her voice cracked, “They’re trying to keep me from graduating.” She broke down in tears.

By then, Salia’s father had finished law school and was a practicing attorney at a firm in the state capital. She doubted it took more than a strongly worded letter from a downstate attorney to override the principal’s denial of Salia’s diploma. The incident led to a reconciliation between Salia and her father. He and Katty T. drove up for her graduation.

While in college, Salia spent major holidays at home—Christmas, Thanksgiving, Spring Break. Before long, Richard Palmer proposed that they move forward with her adoption—retrospectively, as an adult. Salia felt whole. But then Payless got pregnant, and—while Salia was home for Christmas—took her aside and said, “Now that we have our own son, you must know that if anything should ever happen to Richard or to me, all our assets will go to him.”

Assets? It was one of few five letter-words Salia had to look up. What did assets have to do with anything?

In her third year of college—the year her biological brother was killed in the crash; the year her grandmother died; the year she was raped on her kitchen floor—she flunked an entire semester, but made a stunning comeback with 4.0’s and Dean’s List. Payless had since gone back to school herself, and was enrolled in two classes at an Ivy League school. She scoffed at Salia’s success: Dean’s List at a state university wasn’t tough. Salia didn’t return the favor by pointing out that a 4.0 with a 6-credit load and a lawyer-husband footing the bill wasn’t much to write home about either. Salia never received any help from her “parents” for school—since she wasn’t legally “theirs”, she was eligible for financial aid to cover tuition and books, but paid her bills working 5 part-time jobs on a 16-credit load.

As a senior Salia was selected for a highly coveted international exchange scholarship. She knew before she applied for a passport that she would not be returning to the States after the one-year exchange program. So she filled all her graduation requirements before she left, sold most of her belongings in a garage sale, terminated her lease, then took one last trip home before boarding a plane to Europe.

She can’t remember what the fight was about—the usual Katty the Shrew crap. This time, though, Salia came right out and called Katty a bitch. Payless ordered her husband to get “that girl” out of her house. Salia can’t remember whether her dad picked up the tab for the ticket, or whether it came out of her pocket.

Decades passed before Salia would call to mind the last time she’d seen her father alive. Standing at her kitchen sink washing the smell of the stray cat from her hands, it all came back. The drive to the airport. The bitch Payless had been from day one. The decade in Europe. The calls “those foster parents” had made to her birth mother, asking “Do you know where I can find your daughter?” The letters she’d sent her father once she was back in the States: returned, undeliverable.

“Those foster parents”, plural? All the others knew where she was. It was her dad on the phone. He spent ten years looking for her before losing hope. And her letters? Who knows whether they passed Payless’s white-glove inspection? It didn’t matter, by the time they were mailed, Richard Palmer had given up hope.

She decided to look him up one last time. She Googled his name—as she’d done multiple times since the mid-1990s in searches that produced few results beyond the same address she’d found in a phone book twenty years earlier.

Salia had hoped for reconciliation. A mutual acquaintance once mentioned in passing that there’d been a divorce. Payless had reclaimed her maiden name. The son whose diapers Salia changed at Christmas and Thanksgiving was grown. Maybe now there was time for her.

But Google turned up little. This time, Salia reached out to her father’s brother.

“Robert Palmer? I don’t know if you remember me, but I was your brother’s foster daughter, and I wonder if you know how I might reach him.”

“Salia? Of course I remember.”

Awkward silence.

“Richard passed away three years ago…. Cirrhosis of the liver.”

“From drinking?
            “Yes.”

“A drawn-out divorce.” Salia listened to the details of her father’s demise. Payless had driven him to drink, driven him to the brink—of disaster and despair. He’d enjoyed a few years as a successful corporate attorney before everything went south. There was a daughter: in the brother’s words, “a total mess.” Trouble with the IRS. Dire financial straits. A squandered inheritance. Failed attempts at keeping up with the Jones’s, the Dows.

He died penniless. No insurance to cover funeral costs. He didn’t want one, and there was none. His ashes stored on some shelf in his brother’s garage. His daughter wasn’t sure what to do with them.

Salia considered asking Robert Palmer for her father’s ashes, but didn’t. The last thing she needed was a fight with someone else’s messed up daughter over the human remains of her father.

Not far from the gap in the gate where the stray cat wandered into her yard like a lost bird at dusk, Salia buried her father. She marked the spot with a sprig of cedar and a plaque that read:

But I always thought that I’d see you one more time again.

The absence of ashes to dance upon seemed a small price to pay:

“God rewards us for letting the small ones go,” she sang softly to herself, with Baez in mind, and Shindell.

Señorita with the Necklace of Tears and Salia
Señorita with the Necklace of Tears
Señorita with the Necklace of Tears

This Piece of Land

They tried to uproot us. They didn’t know we were rhizomes.

This Piece of Land

…a hyperlinked piece of the mind in the act of finding what will suffice, with a nod to Voltaire in the best of all impossible worlds. 

            When she first found it, Lily knew little about the land. She knew it was host to a house—new construction, “solidly built”, according to the inspector’s report. From the moment she saw it, she knew: That place is mine. These were the lilies, and this was her field–here she could drift in measureless oceans.

Location, location, location. You could make a mockery of HGTV by calling this house in the Hood a dream home, for the only dreamlike thing about it was the way Lily succeeded in making it hers. The property’s fantastical qualities were not likely apparent or even of interest to anyone but Lily, her husband, and the two cats in the yard. Even what they later learned about it—from the plat of survey, the neighbors, and the ground beneath their feet—was unlikely to matter to anyone but them. The magic was an act of their minds, and it made them feel like the tops of their heads had been taken off. There was poetry in this place.

It was the summer she turned fifty. Fifty had seemed impossible to the 15-year old runaway selling sex for a ride home after she’d broken out of juvie sporting only pussy and an empty purse on a pair of three-inch faux patent leather platform shoes. At thirteen, Lily had already spent more time handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car than most people surrounding her now do in their lifetimes: she’d already risen to half a century’s worth of fresh hells in the morning. By nineteen she’d graduated high school and been accepted to a mid-sized liberal arts college nestled in the heart of what some still called “Indian Country.” Then came the decade living and working in Europe, the years traveling to Africa. And back in the US, the MA, the PhD, the non-profit serving at-risk youth. Years as a performing artist. From the Winnebago Home for Indians to the University of Chicago in fitty years of hard time. Realistically, the accomplishments did little more than render her unemployable on an American market with no place for impossible dreams, even less for impossible lives, unlikely stories and people who always bring their hearts along.

            The payoff: as a tribal elder had once said, “Just remember, the children will never forget.” Hers was a life spent on the run. Always running from something in search of somewhere. Some “no-place-like-home”-there she might call her own: the rabbit-proof-fence run to nowhere. It was as if every kid’s life she touched with her work was supposed to heal some childhood spirit wound of her own. No sooner had she sutured one wound than pus began seeping from the seams of another. Whack-a-mole for the soul.  

            That was the summer of impossible blooms. Of seeds planted at the wrong time but in the right place and so taking root all the same. Of trees transplanted not once, but two, even three times into holes dug twice their root ball size. Of hibiscus blossoms twelve bold inches wide and cannas stretching in broadleaved Bordeaux eight feet into the air, topped by maraschino red flaglets flapping like silk skirts on the wind. It was the summer of fat-faced rose-flush after dawn and moon flowers staring wide-eyed into the old chaos of a night sky. An awareness of good fortune in precarious comfort seeped from Lily’s sweat into the soil, and it was there she finally found place. On that piece of land.

            By the time summer had passed, Lily knew enough to keep slings at bay and arrows at arm’s length. She knew you had to clean up after a rain, then wash your hands and wait—fresh fish feces and triple action fungicide work wonders without wind. She knew why Sisyphus kept schlepping the stone, and that Tartarus seemed closer to heaven after you’d been to hell and back. She learned to strive and to seek, and yes, at times to yield: soil is more easily moved than heaven or earth. It settles more quickly than men, and comes off more cleanly than blood from your hands. These were good things to know, and maybe if Lily had known from the start, she’d have spared herself decades spent on a no-justice-no-peace-campaign against the world, digging for god—little acre by little acre—only to come out ass deep in debt with three lifetimes of stories to tell.

That was the summer Lily learned what her friend Felicity meant when she said there is a sort of justice in this place. Dig deeply enough in the quest for peace and justice will tumble like backfill crumbling from your hands. It won’t come raining down, nor marching in–triumphant, aflush with pomp and aplomb–but will seem no less poetic for that. It will settle, slowly, creeping with the tantalizing vagueness of groundcover that you don’t notice until your ankle is gripped by it and you nearly trip in its tether.

            Over the years, Lily’s propensity for embellishment diminished, only to eventually signify little and qualify less. She caught herself in the act of finding what would suffice. She would work this piece of land not by any means necessary, but by every means necessary—because there was no sense in grasping for the first good-natured wench to come strolling along. She learned that it was harder to discern the needed from the needy than it was to indiscriminately wield whatever instrument may be at hand: Oh, all of them, Katie! Necessity has always mothered more invention than caprice. It was a matter of finding what would suffice and if none of it would, surely all of it would never be enough either, so you may as well keep looking for the place that is your own. Lily knew now that war would not suffice, nor hunger, nor insult upon injury slung like fish dung in your face until you finally retreated, recalcitrant, to the garden.

            This supreme fiction had been in the making long before Lily was born. The neighbors tell of a foundation’s bones buried deep in the ground, of a Puerto Rican guy who sold fruits and vegetables from the orchard he’d planted there—the pear tree’s rare silver and the way it was struck down by lightning legendary now, even in the solid symmetrical shadow of the crazy-cat lady’s Crimson King maple, planted on the day of her birth eighty years ago. There was much to be said for having spent a lifetime waking to the sight of the same tree in the morning, but why bother lamenting the loss of what’s impossible to recover?

            From the plat of survey she learned that the property was situated on the Indian Boundary Line. That was the border established by the 1816 Treaty of St. Louis, which was actually a series of treaties signed by the people of the Three Council Fires. Ojibwa, Potawotami, Odawa. Her people. Her place. Her land. Ceded to the United States government. Relinquished. In exchange for $1,000 in merchandise, to be disbursed annually over twelve years.

The pieces began falling into place. The street names—Escanaba, Marquette, Manistee, Muskegon—all places her grandmother and the grandmothers before her had lived and been buried. Tribal lore, with its tales of forced migration further west from Mackinac each time the white settlers burned down their villages. Until the family settled in Garden. And finally, this one line from the Internets: “Chief Alexander Robinson, one of the signers of the Treaty of St. Louis of 1816 … son of an Ottawa mother and a Scottish father…born in Mackinac, Michigan.

It was the same old story. Her story. A story of land grabs, of Indian women married to immigrant men.

Stories of relinquishment. Cecession: cede and recede. Sign and resign.

Stories about place and displacement.

Unsettling stories.

Of pussies and purse strings.

            Lily was no newcomer to this place, only to the boundaries now circumscribing this piece of land. Dwelling here in the evening air of the place, the story’s lines land like whispers on the wings of a praying mantis settling in for the night in her yard. It is a story she’d been writing for fifty years, but only learned to read that summer in the garden. The summer of her fiftieth year. Lily knows now how much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, and how much does not.

She knows now there’s no direct line to Lima or Lisbon from that piece of land, but she now knows, too, that about four feet below the soil line, the freshwater smell of lake water rises to remind you that god is nearer the surface than gold in this best of all impossible worlds.

This piece of land. Rearview.