Pearls and Gravel

I’m working as a telephone operator at the Stouffer Madison Hotel downtown and mom, as usual, watches Michael while I work. Things have been fairly peaceful lately and I’m sure it’s in part due to the fact that we’ve moved into a small rental house. The house sits on a large lot and is a good distance from view of neighbors and the big backyard is private and gives mom a place to sit quietly and watch Michael play. I take the bus to work every morning, trudging through the alley behind the house and out onto Delridge Way where I wait for the number 20 bus. I’ve purchased a few skirts to wear to work but I don’t have a decent coat or nice shoes, and the shoes I’ve been wearing are cheap ballerina flats from K-Mart. I have a black pair and a white pair and the soles are made of some synthetic slippery material that actually caused me to fall down while crossing the street a few days ago. Right in the crosswalk on 6th Avenue in the middle of the afternoon……..Bam! I didn’t get hurt but now I have to keep a layer of masking tape on the soles for traction. I wouldn’t mind if all my clothes were second hand if I could just have some decent leather shoes.

I think one of the bus drivers on the number 20 likes me. He stopped to give me a ride in front of the 7-11 yesterday and even let me bring my coffee on board. We deadheaded to the end of the line and it was just the two of us. He was friendly and seemed like a nice person but I while I would have rather just sat at the back of the bus with my own thoughts, I felt obligated to visit with him since he was kind enough to let me board early. The driver’s name is Danny and by the time I got off the bus at First and Union downtown, I was sure I had just met one of the truly happy people in the world.

Michael started first grade and mom is so proud because he tested above average on almost everything. She walks with him in the morning and picks him up at school in the afternoon. We don’t have any furniture in the house yet and no phone either, but it’s much nicer than living in an apartment. Michael met one of the neighborhood kids his age recently and invited him in. When the little boy asked why we don’t have anything in our house Michael told him firmly, “We like it this way.”

There was a different driver on the bus this week. On Friday he handed me a small piece of paper and said, “Danny asked me to give you this.”
I unfolded the very small note and read, if you’d like to have dinner sometime, call me. I didn’t expect to see him again. But what harm could there be in having dinner? It would be nice to talk with someone. I’m usually nervous about asking mom to watch Michael for me because she usually stiffens up and kind of gets a chip on her shoulder when I do—but not this time. Maybe she can sense my new resolve and no longer feels threatened or worried that she won’t have someone to care for her? Anyway, I’ll meet Danny at the bus barn after work tomorrow.

It was wonderful! Danny is so kind and funny! I found out he’s Filipino. I couldn’t tell because he doesn’t have much of an accent but that’s because he’s been in the US since 1955. He’s 41 and divorced. He has the most beautiful brown eyes I’ve ever seen, they are the color of root beer when it’s held up to the sun. I think he’ll make a perfect friend. We went to the racetrack before dinner and after an impromptu lesson in how to place a bet, he handed me $20.00. I bet two dollars and pocketed the rest–$18 bucks can buy a lot of milk and hamburger. The track is a colorful contrast in sound and emotion. Those who win are boisterous and animated, while the losers sit quietly, slumped in hardback chairs or with heads bowed over racing forms studying the horses statistics and jockeys, strategizing before the next race. The floor is littered with losing tickets, like giant size confetti that falls as hard and fast as horse’s hoofs.

Danny and I have been double dating with his best friend Tom. I don’t want to make too much of it but it’s hard not to get attached. I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years. We have drinks, then dinner and sometimes go dancing and I feel almost like a teenager. I’ve decided to let Michael meet Danny. We went for breakfast and then for a walk at Lincoln Park and Danny gave Michael a piggy back ride uphill and even carried my purse for me.

The summer was special in 1987 and the sun with it’s promise of happiness touched the edge of every day and made one feel that certain things are possible; things that would not ordinarily be considered. And so it was in this hopeful atmosphere that Danny moved in with me, sharing the little pink house on 22nd Avenue. He brought his furniture, installed a phone and parked his silver GTI in the driveway. Within days the trouble started as I should have known it would if I had not been so blinded by my own happiness. Danny was simply talking about his mom’s work at the Bank of America and as he spoke I sensed mom waiting for the right moment to strike. Like a snake she lurked in the background, taking each of his words and rolling it around in her head, examining it the way a snake tests the environment with it’s tongue. She said something mean and shocked Danny. Michael ran to his grandma’s side and pleaded with her to stop, calling her by her pet name, “Mums please don’t say that!” But it was too late. Danny looked at me as if to say ‘what’s going on?’ but I could only stare back dumbly, fear rising like a brick in my throat, bile flooding my stomach. Mom walked to the kitchen and grabbed a steak knife and waved it in Danny’s direction. Michael called 911 and within minutes the police were at the door.

When I rented the house I’d put only my name on the lease. Mom had no legal rights to be in the house and when the police officer asked if I wanted her removed I said, “yes.” Surprisingly, she left without much protest, following the officers down the dark driveway. It was suddenly quiet. I felt as if my insides had been vacuumed out. Michael sat beside me on the couch but I couldn’t look at his face. There was not enough air in the room. I could hear Danny packing his things. He pulled his bulky suitcase off the bed with such force that it hit the door and I thought he was angry. His expression told me otherwise. He was hurt and confused. “Barb, I have to go.” He said. I looked in his direction but said nothing. What right did I have to stop him from leaving? He’d been so good to me and Michael and now he saw what I dreaded he would someday know. I’d been exposed. Michael stood on the couch and leaned over the back cupping his hands against the living room window so he could see Danny leaving. The night was eerily black and quiet and the neighborhood was barely lit by a few dull, yellowish street lights. Danny’s car moved slowly, tires crunching gravel in the driveway. I pulled Michael away from the window and held him next to me. Minutes passed and strangely I didn’t cry. Michael sat still and allowed me to hold him for what seemed like a very long time.

Remembering my resolve to be single, I mentally scolded myself for getting off track. We sat on the couch in silence and I felt as if I had on one of those lead aprons you wear at the dentist during x-rays. I was sorry too that I’d allowed Michael a glimpse of normalcy. What right did I have to expose him to such ordinary happiness if I didn’t have the means or the guts to make it permanent—-to make it real? We remained next to each other, side by side on Danny’s black leather couch, not wanting to speak or move because to do so would take us out of limbo and propel us into the future-—and into a life without the man who’d made such a big difference in such a short time.

Minutes later we heard the sound of keys and turned to see the front door slowly open. I couldn’t keep Michael from running to him. He said he couldn’t leave us. He couldn’t leave us!? We laughed and cried and I said I was sorry. Danny told me not to apologize for anything my mother did, that it wasn’t my fault. This was it. This was an opportunity to break free, to live like people are supposed to live.


Life was beautiful in its simplicity. Michael went to school each day, played outside afterwards with his best friend, Josh, and Danny and I went to work and cooked dinner each evening together in the small kitchen. The boys ran through the house laughing and teasing each other, they splashed in a backyard wading pool and shot each other with Super Soaker squirt guns. I learned from my brother, Kenny that mom had gone into inpatient treatment at Cedar Hills, a facility somewhere in Renton. I was relieved but made it clear to my brother– who was 22 at the time– that it was his turn to care for her and that I would no longer provide a place for her to live.

November 1987

A few days before Thanksgiving a stranger knocked at our front door. A woman in business attire stood on the stoop. She identified herself as someone from the coroner’s office and I knew mom had died. The stranger said she was sorry but could not give any details– that I would need to call the office. I called nervously and listened as a man’s voice told me it was my brother. He’d died with a friend –both from an overdose of heroin and cocaine. He’d been identified by a scar he’d received during a wood chopping accident years ago when a piece of the metal axe broke and lodged itself in his sternum. I found the phone number of Lisa, Kenny’s girlfriend and called. She screamed and cried and I listened, unable to provide any comfort. She said she’d drive out to Cedar Hills and tell mom.

The funeral was paid for by the state. I’d never seen a plastic coffin before. It was made of some kind of heavy rubber/plastic combination and had a flat top. The state also provided someone to read a passage from the bible. The woman said she’d read the Lord’s Prayer but she actually read the 23rd Psalm and months later that simple mistake would bother me—-the fact that she’d read the wrong passage, or called it by the wrong name. Did she think we wouldn’t know the difference? The service was held at Riverton Crest on a cold, dreary November afternoon. Several of Kenny’s friends were there and mom was escorted by a few of the staff members from the treatment center. I stood with Michael behind Lisa, who sat in a chair, weeping softly. I watched as her thin fingers nervously caressed the long stem of a single red rose.

Mom was released from treatment just before Christmas and declared that while she was no longer “drunk”, she was still “crazy”. Would she be too ‘crazy’ to actually work the twelve steps and apologize to the people she’d hurt? She was living in a half-way house and would stay there until she could get her own apartment. At least she’d have a small income now as the state provided a stipend for its alcoholic residents who where in (or had gone through) a substance abuse program and were otherwise indigent.

Danny and I made plans to spend Christmas with his family in San Francisco. We decorated a tree before leaving and while I thought it beautiful, it brought a sadness to Danny’s eyes that made me uncomfortable. San Francisco was a strange place; cold, foggy and depressing in the morning but warm and bustling in the afternoon. Michael and I met every member of Danny’s family. I spent hours in the kitchen with his mom, Raymunda, who looked much younger than her 63 years. She had tattooed eyebrows and wore false eyelashes and her nails were painted and decorated to reflect the season or her whim. While she chopped vegetables and rolled Lumpia she told me stories about her family’s early years. Danny laughed with his brothers and sisters, they hugged and talked to each other, not in the guarded, vague way that mom, Kenny and I would communicate, but like a real family, the kind I’d only seen on television.

In the evening the Mah Jong table would come out and Raymunda and Liz, Danny’s sister, would start the game as those who wanted to play converged towards the small card table in the living room and those who wanted to watch found a position behind their favorite player. Brown hands quickly shuffled white tiles and the rhythmic clacking sound would often be overshadowed by a burst of boisterous laughter, “Aye na ko!” someone would exclaim in mock exasperation.

In the morning I’d find Raymunda in the kitchen, and though she’d stayed up late with her children and grandchildren she was the first to rise. I watched curiously as she lit two candles and threw a handful of chopped onion into a hot skillet. The onion sizzled and quickly filled the room with an appetizing aroma. Raymunda smiled and warned me that she’d be cooking tuyok, a small dried fish with a pungent odor, but that the candles and onions should hide the smell. I quickly learned that there aren’t enough candles and onions in the entire city of San Francisco to disguise the smell of tuyok. It was awful, pungent and strong and I listened in amazement as Danny told me how when he was a little boy in the Philippines, the smell would waft along in the warm morning air, stiring up everyone’s appetite and those who weren’t having tuyok felt they were missing out on a feast. The smell would actually wake Michael who’d come into the kitchen with his t-shirt covering his nose looking at me and Danny’s mom with big curious eyes. “Aye good morning my little babaloo!” Raymunda would shout and squeeze Michael and kiss his cheeks.

Back in Seattle we took down the Christmas tree and waited for Spring. There was no snow but the cold dampness kept us house bound for weeks. Michael and Josh were growing close and spent hours together, either at our little house or at Josh’s grandparents across the street. They shared an unspoken commonality; neither had known their biological father. We learned Josh’s dad had passed away from a drug overdose and his mom faced the same struggle, her addiction leaving little room for a relationship with her son. I noticed that Josh would never look me in the eye when I talked to him and Danny commented on how he didn’t know how to hug and his arms just hung stiffly at his side every time Danny embraced him.

One Spring day as the boys rode their bikes up and down the quite street in front of our house, a strange woman knocked pensively at the front door. We’d just gotten home from work and had not yet started dinner, the warm sun teasing us into a comfortable apathy on the living room sofa. I rose to greet the stranger who wore a gray suit and looked overly professional. She said she’s from Child Protective Services and is following up on a report that Michael is kept locked in his room. I stepped back a few inches from the woman as if an invisible person had just pushed his way between us and felt the air leave my lungs. “What?” I didn’t believe it yet I knew who was behind the allegations. “Well I can see he’s playing outside…” she kept her voice business like but her eyes held sympathy for me. I shook my head back and forth, not wanting to admit that my own mother was capable of such a deed. There was no room in my heart for indignation or anger and I accepted the blow as I had every other painful arrow, thrown from the arms of a mother at her daughter.

A month later we moved to a nice apartment in West Seattle on Fauntleroy Way and while I gave mom our phone number, I didn’t let her know our address. I learned I was pregnant and Danny and I were married in September by a neighbor from the old neighborhood who is a minister. We invited just two friends and had a simple ceremony in the living room. I knew for sure that my baby would be a girl, just as mom and I had known without a doubt that Michael would be a boy.

Mandolin came screaming into the world on February 1, 1990. After visiting me in the hospital, Danny took Michael and Josh across the street to eat hamburgers at Kidd Valley. The next day mom showed up with her Native American boyfriend, Leif. She brought me a framed picture of Michael as a newborn and an empty frame for my new baby girl. Mom stayed only for a few minutes and before she left, she said she loved me. It was only the second time I can remember her saying those words.