Dominos (Part 1)
I always wanted the best for my wife. If my loss was her gain, at least
I could console myself that something good happened to someone.
But I was
not the only person in the picture.
several years a neighborhood girl named Mary Jones has spent many of her
afternoons at my used bookstore in the Mission District. She started coming
into the store when her neighbor Esther worked there. I spent two years
helping Mary learn to read.
Mary’s mother Barbara would call and come by to watch Mary and make sure she
wasn’t being a nuisance. She
wasn’t, but she would occasionally have tremendous temper fits. For example,
when she wanted to run the cash register and credit card machine and I told
her “no.” She had a couple major freak-out tantrums about that. Eventually the
cash register short-circuited when a coke spilt on it, so I washed it off and
let Mary take the whole thing home. Her mother told me Mary was playing
“bookstore” at home.
We had a
huge showdown about the piano. I couldn’t let her take the piano home. She
wanted to play beautiful music but just didn’t understand and didn’t believe
that she wasn’t playing music but only noise. She caused a huge scene about
that. I told her finally that she had to go home. She wouldn’t. She pounded on
the piano harder than ever. I’d put the lid down and she'd pry it back up. My
nerves were shot. At last I got her out the front gate and locked it. She
cried and hollered and a crowd of people formed, wondering what horrible thing
had happened. One guy was ready to slam a fist into me and rescue her.
the paradox of caring for someone. Mary had serious troubles, and the more she
showed her inner turbulence, the more I cared about her and wanted to make
sure I watched over her. After the piano showdown, she told me, “Whenever I
act out, my mom doesn’t ever let me go back!”
remember once when Mary was crying and crying because of some fit she had
thrown at the bookstore that her mother found out about. She was sure her
mother would never let her come back to the bookstore. I told Mary, “I’ll call
her and see if I can do something about it.”
puffy and red, washed with tears, she shouted: “It isn’t going to do any good!
You don’t know my mom!”
things worked out. However, it was true: I didn’t know her mother too well.
She often seemed loaded. She was a short,
heavy, battle-tank of a woman who had survived many problems. But she had a
bad temper. Esther described terrible scenes where her mother would yell and
insult Mary right out in the street. She said Mary’s mom, Barbara, had been a
hooker and a long-time heroin addict. She’d get loaded and abusive with her
everything in her life had gone badly, but she was devoted to Mary and her two
other children. She was always considerate to me, and I saw under the
roughness an exceptional tenderness for her children. She would do anything in
her power for them and certainly for Mary. It was touching to see.
Christmas Mary told me how the police had come and taken her father away to
jail. I never could get many details. She’d just drop brief comments now and
then. I learned her older half-brother had been hit by a car and died at 18.
That was about when things went bad and her parents separated. She mentioned
how her mother had to go to a clinic. She was so bothered by her mother’s
drinking that one afternoon, when my friend Apu brought in a beer, Mary
yelled, “Scott, don’t touch that! You can NOT drink that beer!”
somebody at school insulted her mother. Mary swore she was going to beat up
anyone who did it again. In fact, she ended up in several fights, but not
necessarily over her mother. She was overweight, and the kids at her school
often made fun of her.
Mary’s mother came in and told me how the neighbors had reported her to the
authorities twice for child abuse. I think she wanted to tell me first before
I heard it from anyone else. She described both episodes. One time, her
daughter Donna wouldn’t change from her best clothes, so she was giving her a
spanking. The front door was open and Donna’s head hit the wall as neighbors
were going up the stairs. The second time, people in the apartment above said
they heard too much yelling and crying so they called Social Services out of
concern. Mary’s mother assured me that she had to punish her children like
anyone else. She hadn’t been any worse then normal. These people didn’t like
her. Didn’t know her and had exaggerated how bad these episodes were. She
assured me that she loved her children and would not harm them.
such a troubled woman, with such unbelievable problems. I think she just
wanted to tell me where things stood. The authorities had threatened to take
her children away. Listening to her, I understood how everything of value in
her life resided in her involvement with her two daughters and son. She was afraid she would lose
summer my friend Maria and I had an idea. We would pay for Mary to go to
summer camp. It would get her out of the troubled Mission District and give
her mother a break.
mother thanked me but said, “Scott, she can’t go. She’d be up there and have
one of her fits. I have no way to go pick her up. It wouldn’t be fair to those
afternoon in early fall, when I was away on vacation, Mary went out to pick
some flowers in the community garden across from her house. She came home,
went into the bedroom, and found her mother dead. Forty-two years old. Mary
father came back briefly into the picture. The apartment was cleaned up. It
was painted. The front window Mary had broken long ago was finally replaced.
Mary’s older sister Donna took custody of Mary and her brother Ron. Donna was
about 21, with her own son. Some sort of problem occurred and the father was
forbidden to come by their house. Through all of this, Mary came by the
bookstore in the afternoons about as often as she always had. Many times she
couldn’t come because her sister had her on punishment.
very disruptive and loud. I could never even begin to count the times she
chased customers out of the bookstore with her commotion as I tried to get her
to go home or quiet down. I never imagined myself letting a loud kid chase
business away. But I did.
I tried to find ways for her to let off steam in constructive ways. I’d time
her with my stopwatch as she’d run around the gold back table. I’d challenge
her to do as many jumping jacks as she could do. Certainly a park would have
been a better setting, but the little park near her house was overrun by
drunks, gangs, homeless people, and drug
her several jump ropes. I’d tell her to use them out near the curb. One day a
withered addict came down the sidewalk and expected Mary to move out of the
way. She told him to watch it because she was jump-roping. Next thing they
were yelling at each other. The man came in and demanded I give her a spanking
for being such a smart ass.
“Watch your mouth! You shouldn’t talk like that with kids around!” Mary
I said I
wasn’t her parent. “Ok, you made
your point. Now you can go,” I told him.
going until I talk to her mother and make sure she gets a whopping! I never
met such a rude child!”
you’re on drugs.” said Mary.
am. I bin using but that ain’t your business, young lady!”
sat on the black couch and said he wouldn’t leave until he spoke with Mary’s
mother. After some time he started to doze off. Mary picked up one end of the
couch to get him to leave.
touch me!” said the man “I dare you to touch me, because I’ll call the police
on you for assault!”
sir. If you don’t go, I’ll have to call the police.” I said.
end, I did call the police and the man left calmly when an officer arrived. I
told Mary that maybe it was better if she used her jump rope inside the
bookstore after all.
what else I could think of to help out. I helped Mary get a Macintosh computer
for herself and her family. I set up an account with the Burrito place two
doors away. I bought her a new bicycle one Christmas. I would pay her $50 each
June if she had no more then three unexcused absences from school. And I set
everything aside to work with her reading. After a couple of years, her school
gave her so much homework that
she didn’t want to do extra
this had been going on a few years, Khadija came into the picture.
written about Mary and sent pictures of her to Khadija in Morocco. I wanted them
to get along. One picture was of Mary standing on a table near another broken
cash register with register tape wrapped around her head, mummy-like, with her
bursting into a wild gleeful laugh.
Khadija arrived, she and Mary got along even better than I could have hoped.
Khadija was always hugging and kissing Mary and joking with her. She would talk
to Mary about girl stuff that it wasn’t appropriate for me to talk about.
Khadija gave her very good, very compassionate advice. Mary was so proud of her
Moroccan friend. Khadija was like a mother, but also a sister and a friend.
took Mary to an *NSYNC concert. Mary invited Khadija as a special guest to her
birthday dinner in Chinatown. It was Khadija’s idea to get Mary a scooter for
Christmas. Now that she had a fine new friend, Mary started telling me things
like, “Scott, you stink!” Or “Go
away, this is just girl talk! Just Khadija and me. Khadija my part-sister!!”
my heart to see Mary so loved and so happy. Khadija spent many afternoons at the
bookstore playing and talking to Mary.
Mary came to the bookstore with a big bump on her forehead and a black eye.
“What happened, Mary?” we both wanted to know. She refused to say. Later we
got her to talk about it. She explained her brother and she had had a fight
and he had hit her on the head with a pole or something.
night I talked to Khadija about it. I said that we had to tell someone. Khadija
said adamantly that we should not involve ourselves in other people’s
business. “No, but there is a point where, for Mary’s sake, we have to make
sure her brother doesn’t do this again,” I said.
day I called the school and reported what I knew. Khadija said I was wrong to
have done that.
end, the three of us went on a camping trip. I bought an extra tent so Khadija
and Mary could be together and have privacy. We drove up the coast and camped
at a state beach campground near Bodega Bay. Mary got out of the city for a bit and had a very
good time. We roasted marshmallows. We picked up shells along the beach. We
hiked and built sand castles. Khadija and Mary talked and laughed a lot.
about two months after the camping that Khadija staged her fake incident and
abandoned our marriage.
I knew how much Mary loved Khadija; they had been very much involved in
each other’s lives for a year and a half. I knew how special and sweet the
friendship had been but, upon my release from jail, one of the first things
Mary said to me was, “She shouldn’t
have lied. I know you, Scott, and I know you are not lying. I know you didn’t
Plenty of other people thought I was guilty. Plenty of people loved
Khadija and didn’t doubt her. Khadija even went by Mary’s house to visit a few
times after the incident. As if to show everything was just as it was. Minus
But of course it wasn’t the same.