Knowledge Loves You, Love it Back
By Margaret Ann Porter
Miss Renfield hands me a dictionary that is as heavy as a cinder block.
She points to the gold lettering that is pressed into its leather as she sputters, “Look it up, Lisbeth, you lazy girl. I am not a living, breathing glossary serving as appendix to our conversation!”
So I do.
Miscreant: (noun) scoundrel; mischief maker; criminal; wrongdoer.
I had asked Miss Renfield for the meaning of that word because I received a letter today from my father and he’d used it to describe my husband Yancy:
I received your postcard that you’re living in Odessa and have married Yancy Smith. He has proved himself to be the typical untrustworthy Texan by stealing my 16-year-old daughter without the courtesy of asking for her hand. Not that I would have given it because you are far too young to be a wife and he’s never going to be anything but a ignorant rodeo cowboy and roughneck; he is beneath you. Therefore, I cannot give you my blessing.
As you once were a sensible girlinstead of the deceiving ingrate you’ve become, I have enclosed a check for 50 dollarsthat you may cash in order to immediately purchase a bus ticket back to Arizona, alone. I hope that you have by now come to your senses and will do it, Lisbeth. Otherwise, I don’t want to hear from you if you’re still married to that miscreant. I’m just glad your mother isn’t alive to witness these things.
I read the letter aloud to Miss Renfield. She closed her eyes and leaned back into her chair.
“Ah, yes. The paterfamilias always reserves the bitterest anger for the child who deceives. And, did I hear correctly that you forgot to mention your, um … pregnancy in that postcard?”
I busy myself looking up the word ‘paterfamilias.’
Well, that’s Dad,all right,and with just one kid to rule. Me.And, if I’d stayed, my baby.
Still, sometimes I am in fits in the dark of night because I have actuallystarted to miss him. Things like, the ‘ssp-ssp-ssp’ sound that the razor makes when he shaves off his whiskers, which are so coarse you can hear their felling from down the hall; his boisterous laugh whenever he watches that late-night talk show guy, Johnny Carson; how when he caresses the photo of my mother – all dressed up like the Arizona Rodeo Queen that she once was – his face looksexactlylike a lost calf sounds.
When I was old enough to understand, the ladies at Payson First Baptist Church whispered to me that my father wasa saint because for so many years, he’d carried onproperly after my motherhad died. They used words like “courage” and “true love” and “Christian forgiveness” to describe him.
She had died suddenly in a head-on collision with a Coca-Cola truck one night while on her way to Phoenix, and for reasons that no one has yet been able to explain to me to my satisfaction.
Anyway, I was only four at the time so I don’t remember much, other than Dad holding me tight every night in his recliner until I fell asleep, the two of usgoing without a bath for days on end, and that I felt hunger for the first time in my life because he didn’t know a frying pan from a golf club.
Finally, some of the women in the church convinced him to hire Luz Castillo, the sister of one of their housekeepers. She was a domestically talented 19-year-old who moved into the room over our garageand took over my care and feeding in the daytime,then tucked me in at night with a song and a kiss.
Luz sometimes tucked Dad in, too, something that neither of them know that I know and have known for a long time. Around my 11th birthday, I began to understand how babies are either born or avoided, andI could hear them every Saturday night and sometimes Tuesdays after his Elks Club meeting. I am a light sleeper, so I couldn’t help it. Then, every once in awhile I would spy him rubbing her backas she flipped pancakes on Sunday morning or scrambled eggs on Wednesdays, as is his household’s unending routine. Luz’s face would shine with a certain pride throughout those days, too.
The truth is, I don’t really mind it, except that I feel sorry for Luz because after all this time, she has grown to love my father and he is never going to proclaim similar affections for her; he’s got my mother clogging his heart and the gringo Chamber of Commerce people blocking his sense.
So I was left to hear her confused complaints about why not.
“Joo papi, he ees sad, no?But he looshees wife many jeers now … why he no marry a nice young woman?” she said as she rolled my mother’s pink lipstick onto her flawless lips, blinked her eyes in the mirror, and then atomized herself with one of the untouched perfume bottles that still linger on vanity-shrine in my parents’ bedroom.
Luz also dresses up before he comes home, and she has her hair styled in the same bouffant that my mother wore. But he never breakscharacter when the three of us are together – Dad discusses my day with her, kindly asks about her English studies, urges her to do better, and then dismisses her to eat her food in the kitchen while the two of us dine at the family table.
What’s more, pour three martinis into him around the right kind of people and hesoaks in the deep sighs and sympathies of the wives, allbecause he has lost the most wonderful woman in the world. And even though they try to introduce other suitable ladies to him, he sadly, but nobly, proclaims that my mother was everything to him and she is all there will ever be.
When,indeed, there isalready another, and her name is Luz Castillo.
I inform Miss Renfield that I didn’t really deceive Dad, I just ran away with Yancy because I love him and there was a baby coming and I knew thatneither one was going to be good enough for my father.
She eyes me warily and suggests that I look up ‘deceive,’ too.
Miss Renfield is my neighbor and she’s definitely not a miscreant. She’s from Ohio and has taught high school in 17 of the 50 states, including Texas, but now she’s retired.She has not ever been married, not even once!
Shehappily whiles away her time in two rooms – one for her bed and dresser, the other for her books, which line all four walls and completely cover the window. The only light in there is a brass floor lamp that was bent “in one of the meanderings of life,”as she says. A broom handle and duct-tape has corrected its stoop, and a red-beaded shade throws off the kind of light that gives you a long embrace when you walk into the room. Yancy and Ilive next door in the corner apartmentwith not a book in sight so we have lots of windows.
I met Miss Renfield last monthafter we first moved in –she scared the hell out of me by suddenly standing up in one ofour big kitchen windows that overlook the grassy knoll behind our row of apartments. We’d had some soaking spring rains overnight and she was out there planting wildflowers, poking her cane into the dirt and flinging the seeds by the handful.
Evidently, she’d fallen down, rolled toward the wall to pull herself up, just in time to meet my unexpecting face in the window. I screamed, grabbed the broom and stepped outside to run off the fright-faced witch who had surprised me, but I ended up apologizing for my assumption when her craggy old face broke open and a sunbeam hit me in the eye.
“Well, hullo neighbor. Sorry about the startle. I’m Edith Renfield, what’s your name?”
Miss Renfield is not what you’d call a sweet old lady, though, more like a wily old crone, her tall frame now a bony hunchback that is forever bent into a question mark that her eyes seemeager to answer – she has energetic green ones that fill half of her face, with heavy lids and, often, little bloody rivers flowing through the whites. She pins her long, gray hair into a bun each morning but by noon, stiff waves unfurl themselves at odd angles, a vision ofold-lady madness that, at first, intimidated me, but now I think she’s the most beautiful andwise person that I have ever seen or known.
Sometimes I begin to miss my friends back in Payson, dragging Main andcherry lime seven-ups, the Saturday sales at the Western Deb Shop, and that one rodeo cowboy who twirled me around the floor the night before I ran off with Yancy; I never did get his name.
I miss all the laughter and lightness held in themoment before I decided to run away; everything now seems so grave. There is no one to cryto about my banishment from Payson and everything that I have ever known, either. My husband is delighted that we live in his Texas hometown, near his mother, but heheads for the bar whenever I get blue. Yancy is sweet and I know that he cares, but good God he’s as simple as two plus two.
But now I have Miss Renfield, not that she allows me to whine and carry on.
“All right, Lisbeth. Cry it out today and then stop forever. Own your choices, woman!Own them and don’t look back,” she said to me the first time I cranked up some self-pity.
“The only moment that matters is now, and tomorrow is a blank page on which you’ll write the story of your life.”
When you’re in Texas for more than a few weeks, the language starts to rub off on you. When I first arrived here, I immediately enrolled in Odessa High School; I figured I might as well try and get my diploma one day. The halls of the school positively rang with aTexas twang; it shocked my senses when someone suggested that I, an Arizonan, talked funny. I also met several of the oil-patch wives in the laundry roomof our apartment complex, and while things dried, we’d all sip a beer and chat. So I couldn’t help but try and fit in.
To speak Texan, you flatten your diphthongs and say “ohl” for “oil” and “fihld” for “field.”
There is no “I” sound in their words, as in “I like those jeans with the patches.” Nor do they use proper grammar. It all comes out, “Ah lahk them jaynes with thuh petches.”
Then there is the habit of emphasizing the first vowel in a word, doubling up the single vowel sounds and dropping consonants from the end.
“Mah HUS-ba-uhnd wa-urks at Lambert Drillin’ CUMPny,” I say to my laundry room friends, “an’ PAEY-daey issun’ un-tul next FRIH-da, so ken ah barra sa-um shuga fra-um yew?”
Texans always say things sweet, too, even though they may mean to stab daggers in the heart.
“Well, God BLAY-ess him, we shud jes’ kill him, hon’, cuz he’s a mean son-of-a-BAY-ech and I hayte his GAH-uts, don’t the Lard know.”
Miss Renfield has taken to correcting my speech.
“Lisbeth, you weren’t raised to speak that way. Your natural verbalisms are more like … oh, let’s see,” she mused as she stroked her chin,“I’d say, film-star-Californian crossed with someone from the prairie. Keep to that and you’ll thank me later,” she admonished me.
I was amazed because Dad is originally from Nebraska and my mother’s family is from Los Angeles.
I go over to Miss Renfield’s nearly every day because she likes me to visit, especially now that Michael is here.
He is a beautiful baby, I have to say, not getting the big head about myself or anything. His skin is like a fuzzy peach and his hair is as gold as the sun, and his eyes have changed to the color of the sky at evening time. They open wide whenever he sees Miss Renfield – he smiles and kicks his feet at her, thrilling her to the core.
When I was six months pregnant, I was called into the principal’s office to face down the enthusiastic counselor who had enrolled me only three months before, but to whom I didn’t disclose the truth of my pregnancy. All along, I had been trying to dress as if I wasjust becoming a fat girl because, well, it’s sort of embarrassing to be 16 and have to trudge down the corridors of the high school with a baby in your belly.
I finally admitted it to them and was tongue-lashed about being dishonest, right before they called the janitor to clean out my locker and walk me to the door. Seems there’s a law against pregnant high school girls in this part of the world.
It was all terriblyhumiliating, so I ran home and banged on Miss Renfield’s door.
“It is the height of hypocrisy that they will not allow you to attend high school while pregnant, Lisbeth. It is their error, not yours,” she said as she wiped my hot, wet face with a cool rag soaked with rosewater.
Rage blazed in her eyes, but her voice was calm. “It’s been several years since I taught there, but myunderstanding of Odessa High School nowis that the young ladies takethe modern birth control pills so they can … ahem,service the football team sans the inconvenience of a baby.So damn them all to hell, Lisbeth! You are better than that – you and your womb are at least more honest.”
Miss Renfield plopped the dictionaryin my hands again so that I could look up the word ‘hypocrisy’. I already knew the word, but I wanted to make sure.
It seems to me that when you learn to detect hypocrisy, you’re going to finally have a better life, but perhaps not an easier one.
She dug around the lower shelves of her bookcases until she found two moldy math and science textbooks, circa 1939.
“These are still relevant. Take them home and clean them up … use a little bleach and water on the cover and edges. Then bring them back when they’re dry and we’ll get busy.”
I have learned some more algebra and about something called trigonometry – like, we figure out how tall the KCRS radio tower is, using right angle calculations and line-of-sight estimation. It is difficult because the tower is in the middle of the city and it takes Miss Renfield two hours to walk far enough away to figure it out. But I can say with satisfying assurance that it stands three hundred and ninety-four feet.
The wildflowers on the grassy knoll sprout in such profusion that it looks like one of the Monet paintings that are featured in her big art book about the Impressionists. Our row of apartments is the envy of all of the laundry room gals, so I invite them to bring their folding chairs and six-packs so that I can introduce them to the name of each flower – we’ve got tall Indian Blankets and bright Scarlett Flax, piles of Pin Clover and Prairie Bishop, random stalks of Golden Eye Phlox and Texas Yellow Star. There are too many to count, and it’s a bitch to figure out which are the weeds that need pulling, I tell them.
My friends soon lose interest and start chattering about how Carla’s husband Jack did not come home last night. Miss Renfield – who has toddled out of her apartment with her own six-pack to join the party – says “hello” and then beams at my enthusiasm.
“Dear ladies, I fear our Lisbeth is feeling a bit mad, like Monsieur Monet.” She flips the tab off a cold one, takes a gulp, then holds up her index fingerand quotes witha French accent, “‘Every day I discover more and more beautiful things … I have such a desire to do everything, my head is bursting with it!’”
They all laugh and someone says, “Ah ain’t ever ha-urd them kinda pa-urty wurds from the mauth of an old laydee, not never!”
Miss Renfield has me dissect one of the TexasCornflowers, draw the pieces in a sketchbook, and look up the relevant words in the science book – things like ‘stamen’, the male part, and ‘pistil’, the female, and how the flower reproduces itselfwith the help of pollinators.
I tell Miss Renfield that it would be nice to be a flower and be able to reproduce myself with only a bee to aid me. She laughs so hard that she shoots a gulp ofwhiskey through her nose.
“Ah, that was my ideal, too. But no, we shall teach, nurse or we shall marry – that was the code of my day. Your generation is far more fortunate. There are opportunities all around you, Lisbeth … as they said in old Rome, carpe diem… seize the day. And here it is, gloriously in front of us. And another one tomorrow!”
My old friend also gives me books.
I read To Kill a Mockingbird and she explains how the author Harper Lee came about writing the book in her own voice. She was Scout and just told the story in the voice of a child. Miss Renfield has me read that one inside her apartment because the book is a first edition. One of the first ever printed. And, Miss Lee has signed it. She said it was entirely valuable and shedidn’t want it out of her sight.
“It’s a marvelous illustration of the destructive forces found in racism, isn’t it?” she says as I weep about poor, innocent, murdered Tom Robinson. “When we fall into theevil embrace of prejudice, we isolate ourselves from the incremental human truthsthat all races and culturesgain with each generation, and everyone is made the poorer. It’s the great plague of mankind and there seems to be no remedy.”
I spend an hour with the dictionary on that one.
Miss Renfield tells me to go to the thrift shop and pick up used paperbacks for a nickel, which I do. These are different kinds of books – Raven Love and Across the Heart’s Divide. They’re history books, but mostly history of how some ancient woman managed to bed a man and therefore conquer evil forces. All the servicing in the books stirs up pleasurable excitement in me, which makes me blush when I reveal it to Miss Renfield. For once, I am able to quiet her with what I say.
She thinks it over and finally admits, “Well, Lisbeth … one could argue that all reading, even pulp, is for the good, especially if the words are able to penetrate our entire being and we feel something.”
Her comment makes us both laugh so hard, we get the hiccups.
My favorites are her Jane Austen books, bound in red leather and printed in 1922. She lets me take these home. I have read Sense and Sensibility and Emma and am nearly finished with Pride and Prejudice, the one aboutthe awful daughter who ran away from home and nearly ruined the family. Itsomewhat shames me,the pain that Ihave caused my father by running away. And my Yancy is never going to amount to a Mr. Darcy. What a pity.
Miss Renfield says the prose in Austen’s writing is the best use of the English language, full of ironic commentary about the course of life for young women in the19th century, ones who areforever caught in a dichotomous longing forthe conventional life and the pursuit of liberty.
She makes me look up ‘dichotomous’ and ‘ironic’ in the dictionary. It’s a dichotomy that I want to stay with Yancy but am also so homesick for my father and Luz that I can’t breathe sometimes. It’s ironic that I want Dad to know my son even though he’ll probably just teach him how to be one of the hypocrits at the Baptist Church.
Now every dayMiss Renfield posts a list of words on my back door with instructions to look them up and write them out in a sentence, then bring them to her at noon.
“Ah, Lisbeth. ‘The nefarious grocery checkout lady believes herself to be beautiful when she is actually quite loathsome,’ is perhaps a too-strong allusion to her quarrelsome nature,” she giggles. “But you do seem to have a talent for stringing words together …”
She has just finished the plate of fritters and ketchup that I served her and she nods off as she reads my sentences. Her jaw is slack and the residue of masticated cornlies between her gum and lower lip. I hate to admit it, but Miss Renfield’s teeth seem sprung from a grimy Dickens taleand her complexion is as grey as London in January.
As Istand to leave, she mumbles softly, “Oh, so sorry, Lisbeth. I’m just tired. ‘Twas delicious, though …”
Her eyelids tremble as they muster the strength to open, so I lean over to kiss them both. You sleep, I say.
She taps her head with her finger, “I’m your age up here, dear, but my heart is 84 years old and I’m afraid it’s growingfeeble …”
I push her chair into recline, give her a drink of water to rinse down the corn; her lips purse to swallow and they disappear into her chin. I cover her with a blanket and lock the door behind me.
Miss Renfield does not post the words the next day, so I knock. She calls out, loud but uncertain, “I’m not well, Lisbeth. Please read something that you like and we’ll carry on later.”
A doctor and nurse arrive, but I am not allowed to come in.
The next day I telephone her and, after nine rings, she answers.
Can I get you some tea, I plead. I can at least make some tea. I won’t stay and wear you out again …
“You didn’t, dear. I have adored our time … we had such lovely times …”
She softly declinesthe tea and, without a goodbye, the phone clanks into its cradle.
That night I ask Yancy what I should do, because I am so very worried about my old friend. I need to do something, I say.
He yawns and replies, “Aw, don’t do nuthin’, darlin’. She’s just an ol’ gal. Sometimes ol’ gals just want to go out their own way, quiet like. Now put the baby to bed and come on over here … you’re lookin’ extra purty these days, you know?”
This morning, Miss Renfield’s nephew showed up with a moving van and crew because the doctor had called him. Theycarry boxes of things from her apartment to the truck like a relentless column of ants; he plans to drive her back to Ohio to live in a nursing home, near him.
I don’t want to be here, watching her leave, piece by piece. It only takes two hours.
When they’re all done, I stand on the back porch and watch as the nephew pushesher past me in a wheelchair. Her head comes up.
“Hold it!” she barks. “I have one last thing.”
She slowly hooks my bare leg with her cane and pulls me toward her. It clatters on the concrete as she reaches up with her quaking arms and pulls me downto face her.
“Lisbeth dear, it’s been a grand friendship. Please keep reading – educate yourself, because you are incredibly bright. You can succeed, if you want to do so … and you must! Knowledge is all around you, and oh howit loves you. Love it back.”
Shesmothers my face with whiskey-laced kisses.
And then she is gone.