My friend Patience is a librarian. I’m a writer.
“Real James Deans,” Patience calls us.
Patience and I did not grow up in families of readers. In our craggy Pennsylvania towns, it was better to be caught with a cigarette than a book. It was better for our mothers to catch us getting fingered by a boy than catch us on the couch reading.
Reading was uppity.
Reading made people think things.
“Devil’s work,” Patience’s mother would say.
My mother called it lazy.
“Don’t you have something useful to do?” she’d say, and mean dishes.
In Patience’s house, there was a bible and copies of “Highlights for Children” lifted from the dentist’s office. There was “The Farmer’s Almanac.” There was “TV Guide.”
Me, I kept a Webster’s dictionary in the bathroom of my parents’ pink one-story house. I hid it under the sink, behind stacks of toilet paper and my father’s tubes of Preparation H. The dictionary’s cover was denim blue, designed to look like the back pocket of a pair of jeans, an everyday thing.
My mother hated bathroom reading most of all.
“Shit or get off the pot,” she’d say.
“The mouth on that one,” my father, the mill worker, said when they fought. “Just like her mother.”
I saw words as handed-down things, like heart disease and bad teeth.
Orphaned, adopted, I was not my parents’ child.
I’d hide in the bathroom and read and memorize dictionary pages. I’d find smug new words and use them in sentences at dinner.
Words I liked: Flibbertigibbet. Oxymoron. Loquacious.
I could wipe my ass with what you know, my father liked to say.
“I don’t know where you came from,” my mother would say, and I’d say, “Neither do I.”
“I don’t know where you came from,” Patience’s mother would say to her, too, though Patience was what my grandmother called a natural-born child.
I was not natural.
I was loved, mostly, despite it.
One time my father bought me a set of encyclopedias from a man who was selling them door-to-door. My father never opened the door for strangers, but this time he did. I don’t know why. The set was The World Book of Knowledge. The books looked like bibles, egg-shell colored covers, gold spines, gold-tipped pages with strings sewn into the binding to use as bookmarks.
“She’s smart,” my father would say to explain why I’d hole up for hours reading A-C when my mother thought I should be outside playing.
“She’ll ruin her eyes,” my mother said.
“She’ll go to college,” my father said. “She’ll meet a good man.”
My father bought a bookshelf, the only one in the house, a low two-shelved number he put together just for the encyclopedias. The bookshelf had a glass door that slid closed to keep the books safe from dust.
My father wanted the books safe.
My mother wanted me safe from the books.
“I want what’s mine to stay mine,” my mother liked to say, something she learned from her father, an orphan like me. He meant he wanted his children close. He meant he didn’t want anyone to leave him ever again.
“She’ll get ideas,” my mother would say about the encyclopedias and mean the world.
She sighed a lot. She dusted the bookshelf with a pink feather duster. As far as I knew, she never opened any of the books.
Patience and I met in college. We were English majors. My mother told people I was going to be Barbara Walters.
“Pipe dreams,” my mother said, and I imagined a pipe as big as a factory, an assembly-line of clouds.
I’m not sure how Patience’s mother explained things.
When Patience was eight, an encyclopedia salesman came to her house, too. Albion, Pennsylvania was farm country, tornado country, the 1970s, the kind of place where people name their children after virtues or deserts or saints. There were a lot of girls named Hope and Mary in Patience’s school, and one girl named Sahara.
The day of the encyclopedia, the doorbell rang. Patience’s mother, expecting vacuum cleaners or a new kind of floor soap, opened the door, and this man dressed for the city said, “Might I borrow a few moments of your time, Miss?”
Patience’s mother looked more than her age.
She looked like a woman with housecoats and three children and a life in Albion, Pennsylvania. She looked like a woman who’d welcome the opportunity to purchase a new kind of floor soap and she knew it.
The man held up a big white book. The words Wonderland of Knowledge were embossed in gold on the cover and there was a picture of a globe, shiny blue for water, more gold for the land.
Patience peeked from behind her mother.
The man bent down. “Hello, honey,” he said. “Do you like to read? I know I do.”
Patience liked to read. Patience liked globes, too.
The man made a flourish, a magic trick. He tried to present the book to Patience’s mother, who kept both hands on the doorframe.
“You’ll be giving your beautiful daughter a head start,” he said. “She’ll have an advantage over other kids.”
The “TV Guide” was open on the coffee table, dog-eared, highlighted, the map of the world that turned inside the console TV.
Patience’s mother was proud of that TV, the sturdiest piece of furniture in the house.
“This will outlast me,” she’d say, and pat the TV like a puppy.
Patience took care of both her parents until they died. Now she lives alone in a small apartment with a cat and many books, and says she doesn’t like people though both of us know it’s not true. Patience’s car is filled with books on tape. When she drives, she turns up the volume and likes to feel the stories, those other worlds whirling inside her.
Back then, the salesman held his magic book like a lantern. Patience watched her mother once-over his shined shoes, tweed pants, smooth hands, gold watch big as a compass.
“Now why,” she said, the words slow, clicking like deadbolts, “would my daughter deserve an advantage over anyone?”