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May 13, 2003


If people were made of paper, this just might work

By Scott Harrison




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.

For 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.

At first 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.

That is 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!”

I 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.”

Her face puffy and red, washed with tears, she shouted: “It isn’t going to do any good! You don’t know my mom!”

Somehow 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 kids.

Maybe 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.

One 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!”

I didn’t.

One time 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.

One day 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.

She was 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 them.

One 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.

Mary’s 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 camp counselors.”

Then one 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 was nine.

Mary’s 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.

Mary was 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 addicts.

I bought 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 scolded him.

I said I wasn’t her parent. “Ok, you made your point. Now you can go,” I told him.

“I’m not going until I talk to her mother and make sure she gets a whopping! I never met such a rude child!”

“I bet you’re on drugs.” said Mary.

“Yes, I am. I bin using but that ain’t your business, young lady!”

The man 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.

“You touch me!” said the man “I dare you to touch me, because I’ll call the police on you for assault!”

“Look, sir. If you don’t go, I’ll have to call the police.” I said.

In the 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.

I did 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 reading anymore.

After this had been going on a few years, Khadija came into the picture.

I had 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.

When 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.

Khadija 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!!”

It warmed my heart to see Mary so loved and so happy. Khadija spent many afternoons at the bookstore playing and talking to Mary.

One week 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.

That 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.

The next day I called the school and reported what I knew. Khadija said I was wrong to have done that.

Near the 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.

It was 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 hit her.”

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 Scott.

But of course it wasn’t the same.