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