In my graduate social work program, we joked that we chose the MSW program with the belief that it was a “Master of Saving the World” degree. Some of us arrived there with a backpack stuffed with good intentions, white privilege, an earnest desire to “help” and “give back”, and a tattoo of the maxim “be the change you wish to see in the world” emblazoned on our bloody hearts. Others of us had scoured the graduate school offerings and looked for the programs that didn’t require a GRE for admission. A few of us (maybe more than a few?) went looking for an institutionally-sanctioned therapy program that might help us exorcize our own demons and discover some strategies for repairing our own shattered psyches. And I get a master’s degree with it, too? What luck. I’ll take it…and a large order of fries. A couple of the new arrivals may have been true revolutionaries who wanted to shake shit up and dismantle the existing order of things, though they were often derided behind their backs for being shrill, reckless, and unreasonable.
One guy admitted that he was in it for the money. He dropped out at the semester and ended up going to medical school with a specialty in psychiatry.
On the first day of a class in “working with involuntary clients”, the professor — a once-kind but obviously weary man in his 60s dressed in rumply pleated khakis, a haphazardly-knotted tie, and a well-worn pair of Mephistos — delivered a dose of solemn but droll realpolitik: “If you are here because of some overweening belief that you can help everybody, you are might do well to explore another field, like retail or fast-food.” Social work, he continued, is often about working within a system and making the experience of being court-ordered to services less traumatic and oppressive. Some court-ordered clients even find that the services for which they are mandated are actually useful! That’s the trick: figure out how to convince (dupe?) people into thinking that we are trying to help, even if they didn’t ask for it.
After toiling away for a pittance at a non-profit devoted to preventing and intervening in family violence, I was delighted — ecstatic! — to get the call for a job at “The County.” A job in public social services was the best-paying job in town for social workers. In child protection, there was even a pay bump, given the difficulty of the job, the onerousness of the caseloads, and the fact that the social rank of child protection workers hovered somewhere between that of an IRS auditor and a proctologist. Still, at age 24, the thought of making 36,000 a year! made my head tingle. Despite that mountain of cash, I vowed that I wouldn’t succumb to the calcification of the heart that had befallen so many other child protection workers (although the hardening of the heart had already begun, I suspect). I wouldn’t allow myself to become an ersatz law enforcement officer without the badge. It was about the kids. It was about protecting kids. It was about keeping kids safe.
I went out and promptly bought myself a new Honda Civic. The kids would need a comfortable car in which to ride when I plucked them from their unworthy and dangerous homes.
After my training, I was assigned to child protection investigations. We were the the front line. We went out to interview the people who made the reports of abuse and neglect. We interviewed the parents, aka the alleged perpetrators. We interviewed the kids. Sometimes, we brought the police with us. We were just trying to “help”, and of course, the police were just trying to “help.” We had little audio recorders to document the interview, just in case we needed to refer back to it. Or use it in court.
At first, I resisted the authority of my role. I performed the part of concerned social worker with élan and great feeling, knowing that my youthful idealism and hopefulness would shield me from the ravages of pessimism that had infected so many of my older, wizened colleagues. I wouldn’t become Barbara Buchenwald, the tiny Teutonic tyrant with the disproportionately (and architecturally-improbable) large ass who seemed to goose-step down the rows between cubicles while clutching a sheaf of files and who routinely berated “clients” on the phone for their poor parenting and generally bad choices. I’d never allow myself to be like Mary Jo Patterson, a seventh-grade mean girl in a fifty-year-old woman’s body who busied herself with tormenting mothers and her female co-workers while spending hours on the phone discussing fashion and rock concerts with her teenaged daughters. Please, God, don’t let me ever descend to the depths of Ken Gurkee, a doughy man in short-sleeved shirts, sporting a pubescently-spare moustache and a perpetual bulge in his crotch, who professed to be a born-again Christian and stared lasciviously at women’s breasts during conversation.
I would not be like them.
For a while, I did my best. I was respectful with parents, reserving judgment and letting them know that I realized parenting was difficult (though I knew nothing of parenting, being 24 and uneducated about what being a parent even meant). I drew pictures with kids, coaxing them into revealing the intimacies of their home lives while making it seem as if we were merely playing at life without any possibility of real-world consequences.
“Let’s draw a picture of your house. Let’s draw a picture of your family. Let’s draw a picture of what it’s like when your family is happy. Let’s draw a picture of what it’s like when your family is sad. Is that your dad? What does Dad look like when he’s mad? Is that you? What are you doing when your dad is mad? Let’s draw a picture of what you look like when Dad is mad.”
I pretended to listen and simultaneously filed away the utterances they revealed, proud of my guile and the shrewdness of my methods. A few kids were on to me. They sat there, stone-faced, refusing to participate in this Stasi-like interrogation in which they were being asked, benignly so, to rat out their parents. Most willingly took the bait, though, and we drew florid tales together of swats on the backside, a slap on the cheek, a night spent alone while Mom went out to party, and fathers who responded to a sassy remark with a whipping and a forced spoonful of Tabasco sauce.
“It was like tasting fire,” the boy said. “But it wasn’t as bad as the soap. Or the Listerine.”
People call child protection for all kinds of reasons. I liked to think that, most of the time, people called because they cared about the welfare of children. Sometimes people called even when they didn’t “have to”, like concerned neighbors, grandparents, and family friends. They weren’t mandated reporters, like teachers, coaches, and day care providers. They thought something wasn’t right, and they decided to make a call instead of just letting a bad situation fester. I stroked their sense of responsibility and duty and thanked them for their concern. “It takes a village,” I said sagely, applauding myself for convincing them that we were all included in this admirable effort to raise the next generation together. I knew fully well that unless there were marks or bruises, their reports would end up in the “unfounded” pile.
Other times, people called in order to get revenge, like an ex-husband who wanted to make his former wife’s life miserable by calling in reports of abuse, or an estranged grandparent who hoped to gain control of her grandchildren by claiming that they were being neglected. Gaming the system, we called it. Using us as the tools to work out the fucked-up dynamics of their own sorry familial systems.
“I was over at their house today to watch the kids while my daughter went out to apply for a job. I don’t know whether she was applying for a job, or if she was over there drinking with that no-good man of hers. I suspect the latter, but if I ask too many questions, I don’t get to see my grandkids. They had no food! No food at all, except a package of egg noodles, a half-eaten bag of chips, and a can of tuna. What are they supposed to eat?!”
“Sounds like tuna casserole to me, ma’am,” I responded, smirking to myself about the clever tartness of my response as I surveyed the pile of files on my desk that demanded my attention.
As the woman sputtered in disbelief at the impertinence of my retort, I went on to explain the function of child protection.
“I know that the food in the pantry and the refrigerator may not be your ideal, but unless the children are starving, there’s nothing we can do here. Might I suggest that you do your daughter a favor and buy the kids some groceries if you don’t like what they have to eat?”
With that, I bid her adieu and went about my work of protecting the children.
When one has some authority, it is impressive how quickly that authority becomes important — and how quickly it can be misused. We watch the Barbaras, the Mary Jos, and the Kens among us, and we see how effortlessly they move in the world. A conscience is a burdensome thing, and when you don’t bother with it, the world is so much less of a hassle. We become more committed to explaining what we can’t do (or aren’t willing to do). We become more invested in telling people what they are doing wrong, instead of how the system may have failed them. We become masters at maintaining the status quo instead of figuring out what might actually be useful. We tell people that it is their fault.
I cringe when I remember what I told people on the phone. I heard from one woman who had an incorrigible teenager who set fire to their house and threatened her and her husband with a knife. She wanted to place her teenaged son in in-patient treatment or in foster care until they could figure out what to do with him. Since placing the young man in a facility would be a cost to the county, I told her, “Children are not like rescue dogs. If you don’t like them or can’t handle them, you can’t just take them back to the pound.” I remember another caller, a woman who was a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters. The woman was alarmed because her younger “sister”, one of eight children of Evelyn — a single mother — had recently had her fingers blown off in a July 4th fireworks accident. The caller thought that maybe the mother was overwhelmed with so many children and couldn’t provide appropriate supervision.
I chided her.
“How many kids did YOU have to supervise on July 4th? Is Child Protection supposed to roam the city and make sure that everyone who is setting off fireworks is “appropriately supervising” their children? Sometimes, mistakes happen. What do you want me to do? Take away all of her children so that nothing happens to them?”
It wasn’t my best moment. I didn’t listen. I still wonder about Evelyn and her eight kids. I’m sure she was overwhelmed. I wonder what happened to the girl. I wonder what I could have done differently. I wonder what it’s like to stand by and watch a disaster unfold. I wonder about what it’s like to love a child and not be able to do anything to protect them.
In the spring of 1995, I found out.
When I heard Mrs. Ingebretson’s voice, I knew this was a “CYA” call.
“CYA” stood for cover-your-ass. These were the calls that came in somewhere around late April and May. Teachers, counselors, and school social workers called in to make reports about kids that they thought were “vulnerable.” Before summer vacation started, mandatory reporters wanted to make sure they “covered their asses” by calling child protection, just to make sure that “somebody” would go take a look to make sure everything was okay. During the summer months, it would be harder for them to keep tabs on the kids.
Mrs. Ingebretson was a 4th grade teacher. She had a lilt in her voice that gave away her Scandinavian ancestry, and she also had the well-meaning but passive-aggressive intent in her delivery that gave away her Minnesota upbringing. Her vowels were long, and she made every statement sound as if she were reading a children’s book.
“Ooooooh, my heavens. I just don’t knoooow. Kaisha is such an….unusual girl. I love all those kids. I think of them as my oooown. I’m just a big giver, I guess! And a helper. My husband tells me that all the time. You’re just a giver and a helper. I want to make sure that they’re all okay. Kaisha just doesn’t seem to fit sometimes, and I wonder if she’s getting the help she needs at hoooome. We had an, um, incident at school, and it just raised my mama ears. Ooooooh, my heavens. We have a class hamster, dontcha know, and I let all the kids take Mr. McHammy home for a weekend. They just love it! Makes them feel like little mommies and daddies! Well, it was Kaisha’s turn this past weekend. I think she just got so attached to Mr. McHammy. When it came time to return Mr. McHammy to his cage, she just didn’t want to give him up. Stephanie Dahlquist, another student, tried to help her put Mr. McHammy back in his house, but there was a tussle. Oh my heavens…yes. Kaisha took offense and wouldn’t let go, dontcha know, and they were trying — oh how do I put this gently? They both had hands on him and — “
Mrs. Ingebretson took in a deep breath and sighed.
“ — Kaisha just ended up squeezing the poor thing to death.”
The initial report included this information, too, so I wasn’t caught completely unaware. Still, I wasn’t quite sure why this was a child protection complaint. The code on the report said “medical neglect” but why? This was child protection, not hamster protection. While I felt a twinge of regret about Mr. McHammy’s untimely and rather violent demise, I didn’t know what kind of intervention I could provide.
“Ummm….I’m sorry…about…Mr. McHammy’s death,” I said flatly, mustering whatever faux sympathy I could. “The report here says you are concerned about ‘medical neglect.’ Are we still talking about Kaisha?”
Mrs. Ingebretson chortled. “Oooooh, my heavens, yes. I’m so sorry. Yes, I don’t expect that there’s much to be done about Mr. McHammy. We gave him a proper burial the other day out on the edge of the playground. I asked Quincy, the custodian, to dig him a hole, and we buried him in a shoe box. Bless his heart. I don’t know if Mr. Garten, the principal, would have approved, but I just thought the kids needed to have some closure. Some of the kids brought flowers, and we said a few prayers. To ourselves, of course. We don’t want to offend anybody! One of the girls, Missy Marquardt, said a nice verse from the Bible, and by then, I was just in tears so I didn’t tell her to stop. Poor Kaisha stood off to the side, her arms all folded up. I think she was sad, too, but you never can tell with her. She just looked angry, and then she got into an argument with some other girls. Steph, Missy, Heather, and Tiffany. Kaisha said that they were calling her a murderer, but I didn’t hear anything. I think she needs some help. Oh, my heavens…it’s a hard time. I’ve heard that torturing and killing animals is a red flag. She just needs someone to talk to, and that mother of hers won’t take her. It’s just such a shame…”
Elementary school teachers can be a strange lot. While some are just about as warm and cuddly as a bushel full of bunnies, others carry deceit and treachery like a velvet-covered shiv. If there ever really was a razor blade inside a piece of Halloween candy, per childhood legend, it is completely plausible that an elementary school teacher put it there. I didn’t know Kaisha yet, nor did I even know Mrs. Ingebretson very well beyond the current conversation. Still, there was something in the story that felt incomplete. Unfair. Unkind, even. What fourth-grade girl crushes a hamster to death in front of her classmates after having dutifully cared for it through the weekend? With all of her “oh my heavens” and tearful graveside prayers, Mrs. Ingebretson had it in for Kaisha for reasons I couldn’t quite discern. I was a young, green, and stupid social worker, for sure, but something felt off.
“Mrs. Ingebretson,” I pressed, with a note of irritation, “I get that you are sad about the hamster and that you are…troubled by Kaisha. What is it that you would like child protection to do here?”
The Mary Poppins tone took a turn toward the frosty.
“It’s not about the hamster! And I am not “troubled” by Kaisha. She’s disturbed. She’s a disturbed little girl who needs to see a psychiatrist! I’ve made a referral to the counselor. The counselor has tried to call her mother. Nothing has happened. I’m afraid of what she might do! That is why I called! Maybe over the summer — “
“Okay, Mrs. Ingebretson,” I sighed. “I’ll call the mother. Please know that it may take a couple weeks to get Kaisha in for an evaluation…IF it is warranted.”
“Oh, thank yoooooou,” she cooed. “Thank you so much. I just care about these kids. I’m a helper. I’m just a big ol’ helper.”
I hung up.
There was a protocol about how to handle new reports of abuse or neglect. First, the screeners would take the report. The screeners were a cabal of women, veteran and crusty as a loaf of two-day old French bread. They sat there in their own enclosure, about five or six of them, sporting headsets and seated in ergonomically-correct chairs, taking reports and busily entering them into the “system.” I admired them because they were dedicated. They were arguably the most dedicated of us all. They were so dedicated that they often developed urinary tract infections because they never left their desks to pee. One of the screeners, the wife of a child protection supervisor, had cancer. She was in chemo and had lost all her hair. She donned a smart little scarf on her bald head, carefully placing the headset over it. Sometimes, she let the calls roll over to her colleagues while she took a minute or two to puke, but she cleaned herself up and put herself back together as quickly as she could so that no good caller from the public would be left waiting to make a report about child abuse and neglect.
The reports went to the investigation supervisors, who then plopped them down on our desks. They were the air traffic controllers of child protection. They controlled the outgoing and the incoming, careful to manage the flow while making sure that we were conducting our investigations to the letter of the law. The hard cases were usually assigned to the workers who were whiny or negative. Dorothy Firkle, a malingerer who commuted every day from sixty miles north of here, was often saddled with the most difficult cases, probably because she hadn’t learned how to get along. Her caseload was replete with litigious and uncooperative clients and required an enormous amount of work. The more she whinged, the more she suffered. Her sciatica worsened, most likely from stress, and she lumbered out of the office to do her investigations while Mary Jo Patterson called her “Fat Ass” unquietly.
Once we received a report, we had 48 hours to check it out. We needed to make a police report. The police assigned to child protection complaints were rarely helpful. I often thought that the police who had to respond to child protection reports were being punished somehow. Maybe they had used unreasonable force during a legitimate street call and were assigned to “desk detail” until they’d be cleared for actual police work? Maybe they were the officers who had run afoul of the police administration and were consigned to the unattractive and boring work of protecting kids until their reputations had been restored. Either way, they were snide, rude, and barely civil. “Go check it out,” they’d snarl, “and call me back if there’s anything I need to know.”
We were supposed to interview the kids first before talking to the parents. Kids say the damnedest things, and they are more likely to say them if they haven’t been coached or coerced beforehand by their parents. So the logic went. We’d go to the school, when it was in session, talk to the principal, flash our official credentials, and they’d obligingly call the kid out of class to meet with us. The kid would slink into the side office or whatever closet they’d arrange for us, and we’d interrogate them as nicely as we could about “what is it like for you at home?”
Kaisha wasn’t in school on the day I went to interview her. Nor was she in school the next day. Or the day after. After a consult with my supervisor, I decided to go to her home instead. At least I might be able to catch her mother at home.
The address was pretty far out in the county. About as far as one could get without ending up in the adjacent rural county. The school district was suburban, snotty, and exclusive, with the trees and the streets named after them, but unfortunately, it also included some almost-rural riffraff. Before the internet and GPS, I located the address on a map in a book. It was out in the country, a little house on a rural route, with no nearby neighbors. Only trees, a creek, and a pond.
I got lost before I finally found the house. It was on a gravel road, off the main highway, but unless you were looking for the turn off, you wouldn’t have found it. Set back even from the gravel road, behind a stand of old maples, was a little mint green A-frame house with peeling paint, sagging at the front porch and cuddled within a nest of overgrown fennel, bull thistle, and foxtail.
I met Lenora as she was stacking dead chickens like cordwood.
She didn’t look up to greet me or bother with formalities before filling me in on the details of the latest crisis.
“Those damn black flies got the best of them,” she said. “Crawled up their beaks and suffocated them, I guess. What a shitty way to die.”
About the time she said “black flies”, I noticed a swarm of them around my face and swatted them away.
“They came out of nowhere, and now we can’t get rid of the little bastards. Poor chickens didn’t even know what to do.”
There were about ten dead chickens in the stacks, and the black flies darted around them overhead, as if to taunt them even in death.
I stepped forward tentatively to introduce myself.
“I’m Anthony, and I’m sorry — -“
“I know who you are,” she snapped. “You’re from the county. The school sent you. I know who you are.”
She still didn’t make eye contact, concentrating her gaze on making the piles of dead chickens equitable and neat.
Finally, she stood up straight, stripped off her latex-gloved hands, and offered one to me.
“I’m Lenora. You found me. I’m surprised you made it. Most people give up because there isn’t a street sign. That’s why I chose it here. And it was cheap.”
Her accent was twangy and sapid. I wanted to make her talk, if only because I liked to hear her voice. It wasn’t Minnesotan sing-song, but salty, timeworn, and wise.
I tried not to seem intimidated, even though I was, and I continued my awkward introduction.
“As you probably know, there is a report about Kaisha — “
Lenora interrupted me again. She was not about to lose control of the conversation on her home turf. She was sturdy and formidable in her bright yellow wellies and looked accustomed to being in the muck. She was slight, tanned, and weathered. Her arms were long and thin, like vines, crawling out from under her droopy white tank top, and her chest was leathery and mottled. Her periwinkle skirt, crinkly and with pink and yellow splotches, was obviously too big but was held up by a thick leather men’s belt. She wound her hair in a slapdash bun atop her head and cajoled it in place with a couple of precarious combs and barrettes. She was dressed to bury chickens.
“I know they all think that Kai is crazy up at that school. Like she’s some child of the corn killer and all that. Kaisha loves animals. Absolutely loves them. She’d just as soon — -“
She struggled for a metaphor.
“ — cut her own hand off than mistreat an animal. That’s why she loves it out her so much. She gets to be with her babies.”
Lenora gestured out to the field in the back of the house. Back where the old barn leaned tentatively, a couple of goats grazed. Almost on Lenora’s cue, a cat stalked something near the lilac bush and then darted in, ostensibly for the kill.
Still looking out toward the field, Lenora said, “They tell me she’s mental. And that she stinks. “She could use better hygiene,” she mocked. “Maybe you could get her up earlier in the morning for a shower?” Um, excuse me? She DOES take a shower. And she probably gets up earlier than any of you to feed her animals!”
I hesitated before asking, “Is-is Kaisha here?”
Lenora snickered and shook her head before responding.
“No, I have her tied up in the barn before I give her a late-morning beating. Would you like to wait?”
I blushed at her sarcasm and managed a half-hearted laugh.
“Well, I — no…of course…I’d…no…um…will she be back?”
Lenora studied me in my discomfort and then guffawed with throaty pleasure.
“Of course she’ll be back. She’s down by the creek, but who knows how far up she’s gone by now. Don’t worry. When she’s hungry enough, she’ll come back. Besides animals, Kai’s one true love is food.”
I didn’t ask why Kaisha wasn’t in school. It was still a school day, even though there were just a few days left in the year. Whatever the case, I hoped to meet Kaisha, if only to see what this alleged hamstercidal maniac looked like in person. I had a hunch that she was just a girl. Then again, I knew I was young, green, and stupid. Perhaps a young wendigo lurked off in the woods down by the creek and would wander back only occasionally for scraps of raw meat and the unfortunate passerby. Hamsters were but a snack.
Lenora motioned me to the porch at the front of the house and invited me to a rusted metal chair with a dirty cushion on the seat. She generously brushed off the leaves from the seat.
“How long will you be here? Would you like some tea?” she asked.
Still stammering to find my words, I responded, “Oh, I’m,…not…really…sure…yes…that would be…not long…thank you…um.”
Lenora looked at me bemusedly. “Is that a yes or no on the tea?”
“Yes, please. No sugar, please.”
“Ugh,” she grunted. “Northerners. Y’all are killing me. No sugar please. Ugh. You don’t know what’s good.”
She disappeared behind the screen door. The house belched a cloud redolent of must, wet dog, and bacon grease. It wasn’t necessarily a pleasant odor, but it was homey and lived in. It was the kind of smell that not only hung on your clothes but also seeped into your pores, like a marking of territory.
I arranged my forms, the ones that Lenora would need to sign. A release form that acknowledged that I could interview her and audio-record it. A form that acknowledged that she was Kaisha’s legal guardian. A form on which she would list her contact information, as well as an emergency contact number. A form on which she would state her tribal affiliation, if she were Native American. A form that would acknowledge her desire for social services, if any would be recommended. A form that stated whether or not she was currently using drugs.
So many forms. I needed a master’s degree to do this?
I had just prepped my audio recorder when Lenora appeared with the tea. She set the tumbler on the rusty side table next to me, which was actually an overturned barrel. For propriety, Lenora put out a coaster for my glass.
“Unsweetened,” she scoffed. “Unless it has sugar, it tastes like horse piss to me.”
I smiled weakly at her hospitality, took a sip of the cold tea, and imagined horses in fields of alfalfa and clover.
I cleared my throat. “Before we get started, I just need you to know that I’ll be recording our interview…so that we will have it on the record, y’know.”
“I’ll, uh, need you to sign these forms, too. Some forms for the county.”
She picked them up, glancing at each one with a furrowed brow. She handed the stack of papers back to me and said, simply, “No, thank you.”
“Um, well,” I stuttered. “I, uh, need them. For my files. To, um, make sure that — “
Lenora’s eyes narrowed and she studied me carefully before speaking.
“You’re here about Kaisha, right?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said, practicing my skills at deference and respect. “I’d like to know about Kaisha.”
“Well, then,” she said, sitting back in her chair and folding her arms across her chest. “I’ll tell you about Kaisha. No forms. No recording. Just us talking. If you’re willing to listen.”
I gently placed my recorder and my papers on the crate-cum-coffee table in front of us.
“Yes, I’ll listen.”
Lenora closed her eyes, stretched her arms above her head, and let out a long, ancient, and rumbling groan.
“So, what do you want to know?”
“Well, let’s start with why Mrs. Ingebretson is so concerned about your daughter.”
Lenora sighed and rolled her eyes.
“I tell you what. That woman is a boil on my ass. She acts and talks like she’s a sweet cream biscuit, but she’s as slippery and cagey as they come. Getting a good read on her is like trying to catch a fart with your bare hands. All this talk about “I–just-want-to-help-you-and-make-sure-that-Kaisha-gets-the-help-she-needs” is some pure bullshit. She doesn’t want to help me. She sure as hell don’t want to help Kaisha.”
Lenora’s take on Mrs. Ingebretson wasn’t wrong, as far as I was concerned. I’d had a similar uneasy feeling in my dealings with her. Still, I was curious about how we’d all arrived at this point.
“Besides the, um, hamster incident, have you had other run-ins with Mrs. Ingebretson?”
“Ever since Kaisha started at that school, it’s been one big run-in. Kaisha talks funny. Kaisha smells bad. Kaisha dresses weird. Kaisha doesn’t get along with the others. Kaisha daydreams. Kaisha sings when she’s supposed to be quiet. Kaisha is quiet when she’s supposed to be singing. I tell you what. Kaisha may have some objectionable behaviors, but hamster killing is not among them. I think that Mrs. Ingebretson is just mad because Kaisha isn’t all hodey-todey-fudey-cudey-Scanda-hudey” blond-haired Love’s Baby Soft girl. Kaisha ain’t that girl. She likes to get dirty.”
I cocked an eyebrow. “Hodey-todey-fudey-cudey-Scanda-hudey?”
Lenora chuckled. “I tell you what. The people up here and their accents! When I first moved up here from Texas, I just thought, “What the hell?” That singy-songy Minnesota shit just grates on my nerves. That’s how it sounds — hodey-todey-fudey-cudey-Scanda-hudey. Every time I heard that woman speak, I wanted to slap her upside the head and say, ‘Oh, my god, just talk right!’”
I had to laugh. “Oh, mah gawd. Jis’ tawk rahhhtt.” Yes, indeed.
“So, you and Kaisha are from Texas?” I asked.
“Ha! Yes. But don’t hold it against us,” Lenora said with a smirk. “Where are you from? Local boy?”
“No, I’m from Iowa,” I said, a bit apologetically. “But don’t hold it against me.”
“Nah, Iowa never did nothing to nobody. Bored the shit out of me when I was driving through on the way up here, but gave me lots of time to think. Stopped at the Boondocks to get me some gas and buy me a coke, but I barely stepped foot in Iowa. We all have to be from somewhere, I guess.”
“What brought you up here?”
Lenora shifted in her chair, took a sip of her sugary iced tea, and looked over to the pile of dead chickens across the yard.
“Let’s just say that Texas wasn’t good for me and Kai anymore.”
I stayed silent and let the quiet fill the space between us. We both stared at the dead chickens together and watched as a couple of the living pecked around mournfully at the stack of the fallen.
Lenora opened her mouth to speak a couple times, and then she censored herself. There was obviously a story to tell. She weighed her options carefully before deciding which story she wanted me to hear.
“Things got bad at home. Lots of drugs. Lots of drinking. Lots of fighting. I couldn’t find my way out, and Kai was left to fend for herself a lot of times.”
I looked at Lenora. She looked old. Far too old to have a 9-year-old daughter. I assumed that her face and body revealed the ravages of too much partying, too much drugging, too much drinking. She’d been beaten up. Physically? Psychically?
“Do you have other children, besides Kaisha?”
Lenora’s jaw clenched and her expression darkened.
“Which ones? The ones who still have anything to do with me?”
“How old are they?”
“Well, my son was kicked out of the army, last I heard, and my daughter…” Her voice trailed off.
“I begged my daughter to come with me,” Lenora said softly, almost in a whisper. “But she told me to leave her alone. Told me she didn’t need my help.”
Lenora sucked in a sharp gasp of air and smoothed out her skirt. She smiled wanly and shook her unkempt nest of hair.
“Liberty and Law. Liberty and Law…”
“Liberty and Law,” Lenora repeated. “Who the fuck names two cute little baby boys Liberty and Law?”
I shook my head, still confused by the turn in the conversation.
“That asshole propped himself up as a man of God, the flag, and country. Such a fine and upstanding man, yes! So patriotic that he named his new baby boys Liberty and Law…Asshole.”
I scrambled to keep up.
“Liberty and Law? Your grandsons?”
“Yup,” she said flatly. “My grandsons. My grandbabies. I held them exactly once. And then he told my daughter that he didn’t want his precious boys exposed to the ‘deviant’ lifestyle of their dyke grandmama no more. He said that I couldn’t see them. Pulled a gun on me to show he wasn’t kidding.”
“I’m-I’m so sorry. That must have been hard,” I replied, mustering all the Carl Rogers regard I could but finding myself hopelessly inept in the attempt.
“And the thing is that he was not only an asshole but a loser, besides,” she said angrily. “He was stupid. He IS stupid! Never could keep a job. Couldn’t find his ass with both hands at high noon with a map. Was always borrowing money and stealing shit and doing all kinds of shady things. He beat the hell out of my daughter on a regular basis. And yet, he had God and patriotism! He told my daughter to pray for forgiveness. Pray for redemption! Atone for your sins! A true American. A real Texan, he was. A real dickhead, if you ask me.”
“It, uh, it sounds like your daughter is having a hard time,” I offered blandly. “I’m sorry that you have missed your grandsons. Liberty, and, uh, Law. I’m, uh, happy that you and Kaisha have made it here safely. What do you think Kaisha needs? What do YOU need?”
I regretted asking the question once I asked it. We had been instructed by the county not to offer families anything other than the bare essentials. Parenting classes? Time-limited therapy for the child? A referral to Economic Assistance, if they hadn’t applied already? Stories are complicated. Once they get started, they take on a life of their own. For me, the stories were the most interesting part of my work. I often found myself behind because I let the stories wander where they needed to go. Unfortunately, child protection is not about the stories. It’s about determining whether or not abuse and neglect occurred, and what to do about it. We’re in, and then we’re out. No time for stories. No time to be helpful.
Lenora knew it. She eyed me warily.
“Careful, now, young man,” she admonished. “Don’t be making promises you can’t keep. You’re not here to help me. We both know that. Besides, I got problems that you can’t even begin to imagine.”
I couldn’t even imagine. These were the times when I felt utterly ill-equipped to be a social worker. Sure, I’d done my coursework. Sure, I knew what to say, perfunctorily so. Had I traveled a path like hers? Never. In my 24 years, had I experienced the bumps, bruises, worries, and nightmares that she had? Never. Young gay guys and older lesbians may share a putative psychic space, but we will likely never be able to fully inhabit the other’s story.
“To answer your original question,” Lenora continued, “why did I move up here? For three main reasons. One, to keep us both safe. Two, to take care of my cancer. And three, to give Kai a chance to be loved and cared about without all of that other shit that she was living through. That’s why I moved up here.”
“You are, um, have cancer?” I asked, trying to be casual.
“Yes, I have cancer. Breast cancer,” she responded forthrightly as she pulled down the collar of her tank top to reveal a jigsaw of scars across a mass of flesh where a breast used to reside. “I had the mastectomy at Anderson in Houston and thought I was in the clear. Then, I found this fucking lump in my other armpit. I guess it’s still here. I came up here with the hope that I could get it all taken care of once and for all. We’ll see…”
I was in over my head. All I wanted to do was hold her. Hold her and apologize and say that I had no right to be here. Nobody should let people become social workers until they are at least 50. Until they’ve lived a little bit. Until they’ve lived a lot.
“I assume you have insurance,” I said stupidly.
“Of course I have insurance,” Lenora said wryly. “When I am Susan Larson. With Susan Larson’s driver’s license and medical ID number. And Susan Larson’s social security number. Hahahahaha! Why am I telling you all this? Medical neglect of a minor! Drug use! Domestic violence! Homosexuality! Insurance fraud! You have more than enough to take Kaisha away. I am an unfit mother! I AM AN UNFIT MOTHER!”
Lenora stood up and whirled her skirt around. She was euphoric — or crazed. She was unburdened of her secrets. She was free.
As she was whirling, a voice called from around the corner of the house. An imp, small and slight, with flyaway brown hair and smudged cheeks, held up two live frogs proudly.
“Look, Grammy!” she exclaimed. “I already named them — Liberty and Law! Just like my baby brothers!”
Lenora gathered the child in her embrace, then spit on her fingers to wipe some mud from her face. She hugged her again and then spun her around to present her to me.
“This,” she said, “is Kaisha.”
The girl cocked her head to the side, squinted, and proclaimed, “Hi, you look like Chandler from ‘Friends.’ He’s funny. And dumb, sometimes.”
I nodded humbly from such faint praise. “Um, thank you. ‘Friends’ is a good show.”
Kaisha danced away with her frogs, proudly holding them aloft in each hand, singing, “Liberty and Law! Liberty and Law! You’re the cutest froggies that I ever ever saw!”
Lenora called after her, “Put them in the empty fish tank. With some water! And make yourself a sandwich! There’s bread on the counter and lunch meat in the fridge, darlin’.”
The girl disappeared. Lenora’s expression faded from proud and loving to somber and pensive in an instant.
“I suppose you’d like to talk to her. Wouldn’t you?”
I would have liked to have collected my things and driven away without another thought, but I knew that my responsibility called me.
“Yes, ma’am. For just a few minutes, if you don’t mind. I’d just like to — “
“You can talk to her out here. I’ll take care of some things in the house…”
The stories. They connect to other stories. At some point, the stories ensnare us all and bring us together. Stories of when we are scared. Stories of when are strong. Stories of when we’ve loved. Stories of when we try to protect those whom we love. Stories in which we tell the truth. Unwittingly. Because we know no better.
“What is it like in Mrs. Ingebretson’s class?”
“It’s okay, but I hate it there,” the girl said plainly, sitting cross-legged on the rug on the porch. “I don’t belong.”
“Why don’t you belong? You seem very nice,” I said, hoping that this would be more of a conversation and less of an interrogation.
“Stephanie Dahlquist makes fun of me because I love animals. She says I stink like an animal, and Mrs. Ingebretson lets her,” she stated. “I didn’t kill that hamster. Mr. McHammy liked me better. Stephanie was jealous and tried to grab him from me. I was putting him back in his house. She grabbed him, and I wouldn’t let her, and that’s when he died.”
It’s a horrible thing when someone who hates you also robs you of something. I understood. It’s hard to protect and survive at the same time.
“What was it like in Texas, before you came here?”
Kaisha toyed with her shock of dark brown hair before rolling on her back on the rug, draping her knee over her other bent knee and splaying her arms out like a cross.
“Danny hated me, too,” she said. “He always said that since I wasn’t his blood, he didn’t give a shit about me. My mama hugged me sometimes, but when she was loving those new babies and giving them milk, she didn’t have a lot of time. He’d tell her that she wasn’t a good mama, and he’d beat her up. She’d make me some soup and tell me to go watch TV or read. She was busy with those babies. And putting an icepack on her face.”
“Your mama is Lenora?” I queried, motioning to the woman just behind the screen door. “Or — “
“No,” replied Kaisha, still lying on her back. “Lenora is my grammy. Linda is my mama. She’s still in Texas.”
Stories twist and turn. Stories come together. I paused.
“Soooo…Lenora is your grandmother?” I asked, attempting vainly to mask any disbelief or astonishment I might be harboring.
“Yep,” Kaisha replied without hesitation. “She’s my grandmama. She brought me here. She said that she’d make sure to get us safe. And she could take care of her cancer.”
“Who are Liberty and Law?”
“They are my little baby brothers. I love them. And Grammy does, too. But Danny says that she ain’t allowed because she’s bad. On account of Miss Caroline.”
“Miss Caroline is my grammy’s friend. They’re like married. Miss Caroline runs safe houses for women who are being battered. This is her spot.”
Lenora appeared in the doorway, behind the screen.
“Kaisha! Go run along and take care of your frogs. I don’t know what they eat, exactly, but maybe you need to catch some flies or something for their dinner.”
Kaisha unfolded her legs, lifted herself from the floor, brushed off the leaves and seeds that stuck to her backside, and ran off into the vast yard to provide for her new babies. She had a maternal instinct. She’d had good teachers.
Lenora stepped gently out onto the porch and took a long drag from a joint.
“I’ve been helping women escape from abuse for the last twenty-five years,” she said as she exhaled. “I’m ashamed to say that my daughter was one of the ones I couldn’t help.”
The lemony skunk smell of the smoke hung in the air and enveloped us. I didn’t usually like the smell of pot, but, this time, I took solace in it.
“I know I wasn’t supposed to listen, but I did,” she said guiltily. “The one thing is, I never told her to lie. Speak your truth and live with the consequences. That’s been my motto.”
Recognizing that she hadn’t been completely honest with me up to this point about her relationship to Kaisha, she quickly revised herself.
“Usually my motto.”
“She’s your granddaughter?” I inquired, knowing that it was more of a statement than a question.
“Yes, she is,” Lenora said, taking another long toke on her joint. “She is my grandbaby. And the little boys are, too.”
“Liberty and Law?”
“Yes,” Lenora laughed. “Liberty and Law. Good fucking god. I still remember what they smelled like.”
“And Miss Caroline?”
“Caroline and I were in the movement together. Like an underground railroad for women who were trying to get out. Shelters are fine and all, but sometimes, women need to get well and fuck away from their abusers. There’s a whole network across the country. Little houses and apartments and farms out in the country where women can go to get refuge. Start over. Heal. Find a new identity. Make a clean start. When I told Caroline what was going on with Linda, she said, ‘Bring her here.’ When I knew that Linda wasn’t going to come, I said, ‘Can I come by myself — with Kai?’ She said sure. She was from Texas, too, but she moved up here when things got to be a little too close. Her cover had been blown, and she needed to get away. People knew what she was doing. Yeah, we fucked before. A night or two after I’d brought some women up here to her safehouse or en route to somewhere else. We’d always been tight. Everyone knew it. Danny saw right through us. ‘Is that dyke bitch your wife?’ he said. I told him she was my friend, but he didn’t believe me. That’s when he pulled a gun on me. ‘Get the fuck out, you fucking lesbo. I ain’t about to have my boys around a cunt like you.’”
At the word cunt, Lenora broke down into sobs. Heaving, wracking sobs. The kind of sobs that emanate from somewhere deep and personal, as only mothers can know.
“I couldn’t take it no more! I couldn’t! I watched her, my Linda, whenever she’d let me around. I watched her get high on Fridays and Saturdays with Danny, recover on Sundays in bed, get beat up on Mondays and Tuesdays, nurse her black eyes on Wednesday. Thursdays were the only days when she could even make something decent for Kai to eat and maybe give her a hug. One day a week is not enough for a little girl to get some love, y’know???! She’s just a girl.”
Lenora squatted and then let herself fall into the wall. She beat her head into that wall, sobbing and wailing. One day a week for love. It’s not enough for anybody.
“I know what that life is like. I know what those boys are in for. They are going to grow up to be just like Danny! I wanted so much better for Linda. I did, I did. I wanted so much better for Sam, too…FUCK! I wanted so much better for him. I don’t even know where he is. To love him, to let him know that I’m here…”
Sam. Her son. The one who was estranged. Disappeared from her life. Linda. Liberty. Law. She’d left them all behind. To save just one. Kaisha.
“Where is Kaisha’s father? Can he help?” Another stupid social work question. In social work world, there are always family members waiting in the wings, willing and able to help.
Lenora looked at me incredulously.
“Are you for goddamned real? Kaisha’s father?? Kaisha’s “father” got Linda pregnant, lived at her house, smacked her around, and then when her food stamps ran out because she got a job and told him that he should too, dumped her like yesterday’s fucking garbage. Yes, Kaisha’s “father” is a real stand-up guy.”
I deserved it. When we ask naïve questions about one’s support network, chances are good that they’ve already thought of it before. Many times.
“I’m so sorry, I — -“
Lenora motioned in the air as if brushing me aside. There was no time for apology or ridiculousness. She’d heard it before. I was merely a stand-in for every “helper” who had tried to intervene with good intentions, if only to fail miserably in the understanding of what the real world could be like.
“Do you know anything about what it’s like to leave everything behind? Do you know anything about what it’s like to hurt? I mean, really be in pain? Do you know what it’s like to keep a child safe?”
Some of us know more than others. I didn’t know how to answer.
“I DID ask Kai’s father for help! I begged him! I said, ‘Your daughter needs you, okay? Can you give me just a few bucks to get an apartment and give her a place to be?’ You know what he said?”
I knew nothing of such things. I sat there, speechless. I leaned back and shook my head.
“I don’t got a dog in that fight!!! That’s what he said. ‘I don’t got a dog in that fight.’ Well, la dee fucking dah. I don’t got a dog in that fight. Bully for you! Must be nice.”
Lenora paused for a minute mid-breath and then whirled around, laughing deliriously.
“I tell you what. I got so many dogs fightin’ right now, I can’t even keep track of ‘em!”
Lenora crouched in crazed laughter, and then she became a dog herself on all fours.
She approached me.
“I got a lot of dogs in this fight,” she snarled. “And I ain’t gonna give up until I have to.”
I reared back, fully certain that she would soon sink her fangs into my thigh.
We both stopped. And breathed. And panted.
Lenora calmed herself for a moment, briefly steadied herself with a hand on my knee, and rose to her feet.
She paced the porch, wringing her hands, muttering to herself. I stayed stock-still, afraid to move, afraid to respond. The time for remaining calm and indifferent had long since passed.
“You’re from child protection, aren’t you?” she asked, with a sneer.
“Yes, ma’am. I am,” I replied meekly.
“Well, let me just say,” Lenora said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I DO have a dog in this fight. And maybe I’ve done wrong — “
She dissolved into tears.
“You do what you have to do. You go ahead and make whatever report you have to make. But — “
Lenora fortified herself for just a moment before heaving into renewed sobs, full of grief, full of fear.
“ — but don’t go around calling yourself ‘child protection’ ’cause you ain’t! You ain’t protecting nobody! If you send that little girl back to her mama, you ain’t doing anything about protecting her! Who knows what will happed to her there? She might die there, and you will have to know that you are the one who sent her back!”
We were both crying by then. She, the grandmother who lied to protect her granddaughter. Me, the social worker who didn’t know what he was doing, except to believe that some people will stop at nothing to save the ones they love.
“I stole her. I admit it. I STOLE her. Some might call it ‘kidnapping.’ I call it ‘rescue.’ You call it whatever the fuck you want. I have a long history of helping people get safe. This isn’t anything new. This time, it’s personal.”
“It has always been personal.”
I wondered about how I would get home. I wondered if I would find my way out. I wondered if I would be able to ever do this again.
Lenora dried her tears with her skirt, but her chin still quivered.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have chickens to bury.”
Putting on my best professional air, I gathered up my papers and my recorder and stuffed them in my bag.
“I’ll review my notes with my supervisor, and we will get back to you soon with a decision about your case.”
In my heart, I knew I’d never see Lenora or Kaisha again.
I returned to the house five days later. This time, I didn’t miss the turn. I drove up to the house, the same sagging mint-green house with the screen door and the makeshift furniture. There were no chickens. Just a mound of freshly-turned soil. No cats. No goats. I knocked on the door multiple times. No response.
I imagined Lenora and Kaisha, and maybe Caroline, driving through flatlands north of Minneapolis. En route to Canada? I worried about Lenora’s lump in her armpit. Maybe they managed to fit goats into the back of their Subaru, along with a glass tank containing two frogs. Liberty and Law, on the lam. I cranked up the stereo in my Honda Civic and wished them well while plotting my own escape.
Sometimes, stories need to be free.
Anthony Weeks is a storyteller, public listener, and facilitator based in San Francisco, CA. The story is true, though some names have been changed.