Synonyms for Lavender
    Jill Wolfson
I was four when my mother, Betty Lavender, taught me the five synonyms for sadness. She sat me on her lap in the library, hooked her skinny arm around my waist so I wouldnít squirm away. Sorrow," she said and I repeated after her. "Sorrow." Then each word echoing hers: Grief. Melancholy. Despondency. Blues. Depression.

"Now on your own," she insisted. "Put all your concentration here." She tapped me lightly on the nose. And because I wanted nothing more than to shine in Betty Lavenderís eyes, I bunched all my features into the center of my face, eyes squeezed, lips pursed tight. Then, I let everything go in one long exhale: Sorrowgriefmelancholydespondencybluesdepression."

The delicious, meaningless sound made me giggle. I pounded my fists on the table. "More, more!" I begged. My mother nodded her approval, kissed me once on each cheek, like we were presidents of foreign countries.

After that, there were lessons almost every day. I jumped though Bettyís hoops, bounded through her mental rings of fire. Counting to 10 in six different languages? Uno! Deux! San! The Latin names for the layers of the skin. I could do that!

"Owls of the western United States," I recited with a pre-schoolerís flair for smugness. "Screech. Great horned. Long-eared. Great gray. Hawk owl."

"Priests from ancient Rome waited for certain birds to appear in the sky," my mother read, running her index finger along the words in a book. "From that, they could portend things."

"Pretend things, Betty?" I asked. Now this was an interesting notion! At the time, the only priest I knew was Father Mike at Sacred Heart Church and I pictured tall, big-bellied, serious Father Mike pretending to be a fireman, Father Mike in a Hawaiian shirt and grass skirt Ö

"Portend," Betty corrected. "A verb. To predict. Foretell. Herald. To know things about the future."

"What kind of things?" I asked.

"The important things!" she said, shaking her finger in the air. "Who will live? Who will die? Who is friend? And who is enemy?"

As far as I could tell, there was no pattern to what captured Betty Lavenderís attention other than where the hot winds of her mind took her. She would get an idea into her head Ė We have to know this! -- the way some people decide that they have to climb a mountain or swim a channel, have to thrash their way up it and through it because if they donít, they will spend the rest of their life wandering around in a haze of stupidity and self-doubt.

When I look back, I wonder now if maybe it was Betty who could see into the future, portend things, and that this was her legacy to me, as if cramming me full of information, equipping me with pure facts, would somehow keep me closer to truth.

It was during those brain-stuffing years that we lived in a far corner of the outskirts of downtown San Jose. Considering the way my mind was so finely trained to hold details, itís puzzling that I have only a few memories of the small apartments that we drifted from, one to another. A hissing radiator. A sink that wouldnít drain. Middle-of-the-night coughing that came through the walls.

But what I mostly remember is this: Living with Betty was like living in the far, far northern reaches of the earth. There were long periods of darkness when she would withdraw into frigid silence. It was up to me then Ė a confused and clumsy 4-year-old, a 5-year-old and eventually a very resourceful 8-year-old -- to scurry about. I washed her face, brushed her hair. I brought her glasses of water. I was a great toast cooker! Days Ė or was it weeks? -- passed in this wintry way when it seemed to me that sunlight would never break through again.

But then suddenly, inexplicably, midnight would explode into high noon, as if there were no dawn or no mid-morning in between. Betty was so much fun then! There was no one on the planet who had ever been more fun. She dyed her hair bright red or as black as velvet. She wiggled her ears, painted our toenails, put New Yearís Eve horns in her nostrils and snorted out the silliest songs. From morning to night, we walked and walked and she talked and talked, a geyser of words. How to tell when rain was coming. Why the rich get richer. How to bite into chicken bones and suck out the marrow for super strength. Betty Lavender knew things. I assumed she knew everything.

It was during these walky, talky periods that the big, bustling downtown library served as the center of our universe. Outside, there was a bronze fountain with water squirting from the mouths of fish, pouring from the baskets of maidens, gushing from the hearts of artichokes.

We were a major part of the scenery too, Betty especially who always outdid any act of nature. She dressed in the most amazing get-ups, layers of brightly-colored silky fabrics, sweaters with feathers and sequins, a hat so broad-brimmed that I imagined tiny people dancing around it. I remember one fall day when she dug into the mysterious used clothing box at Sacred Heart and came up holding a battered, moth-eaten fur stole with the heads of minks, their eyes crossed, their tiny teeth exposed. She never took it off.

Most mornings, we arrived at the library long before it opened, sometimes at dawn if she had stayed up all night. Betty and I would run up and down the outside steps counting each one Ė 57 of them -- relishing the happy, tappy dance of our shoes. She would sit on a concrete bench drinking coffee and scattering pieces of stale white bread to what she referred to as her "Greek chorus," an assembly of bloated, squabbling pigeons that gathered at her feet.

At 10 oíclock, the librarian, always the same woman, would welcome us with "Greetings and salutations." I remember her voice as light and breezy, a pleasant woman right off of a laundry detergent box. But even as a child, I was aware of something watchful and worried in her eyes as they scanned over me.

"And how is the little bookworm today?" she always asked.

I never got a chance to respond. "Step aside, step aside," Betty bristled. "Obviously, you are willing to fritter away your time with mindless, so-called civilized questions that you donít really expect an answer to. But we have better use for our minds."

Every day, the librarian would simply take a step back and let us pass. Except for one morning. That was the morning to remember, when she put out an arm in front of my mother, stopped her like a ticket taker. She didnít touch Betty, no one dared ever touch Betty. But she walked in front of her, got down on one knee before me, like a suitor. I was hit by the Juicy Fruit wind of her breath.

"She needs a teacher, a real teacher." The librarian was addressing my mother but her eyes never left my face. "A more structured environment. An age-appropriate curriculum. A social atmosphere."

Itís important to understand here that my mother did not take kindly to interference. The smallest deviation from her schedule turned her upside down like a carnival ride, shook from her what little social graces she possessed. Both the librarian and I had seen Betty let loose like a barking alien -- Invaders! Vikings! Nazis! -- at strangers who had the audacity to sit at our library table. So understand what kind of courage it took for that librarian to place herself between my mother and me.

I was too stunned to move and stood there like a pudding. Neither Betty nor the librarian moved either. For a moment, just a moment, I thought it was going to be a stalemate.

But then, Betty straightened her back Ė a ramrod. Her eyebrows went up, as if someone was holding a gun to them. "Question! Ann! Fungus that lives inside mustard plants that grow on the slopes of the Colorado mountains? Answer?"

"Puccinia," I answered automatically. Puccinia monoica!"

"Correct! Question! Motto on the license plate of the state whose capital city is Boise? Answer?"

Of course, I knew the answer. The librarian knew I knew. I knew the librarian knew I knew. I also knew that the librarian was trying to plant an idea in my head. Or maybe the idea was there all along, a tiny flame, and she was just fanning it with her gaze. You donít have to answer. Just donít answer.

Guilty, embarrassed, unnerved by the fact that a stranger had gotten into my brain, I averted my eyes. I looked past the librarianís shoulder and focused instead on the stacks of books, a clock with its steady sweeping second hand. And above it all, Betty. Her sternum was pressed so high and forward and she was wearing such an expression of outrage that I knew that everything Ė everything! Ė was hanging on my correct answer.

"Ann!" she snapped. "God damn it. Boise!"

I swallowed. "Famous Potatoes."

"Ha!" my mother said with lordly triumph.

But the librarian did not shrink away in defeat like she was supposed to. Rather, her right hand came towards me, slowly, like fingers approaching a feral kitten. I felt myself tense at their approach. "Shhhhhh," she said with such gentleness. Then, she smoothed the lopsided bangs back from my forehead.

Have you ever fallen off a swing, landed so hard on your back that all the wind was knocked out of you and the world came to a complete stop? Thatís what the librarianís touch did to me. My breathing caught in my chest. The minks on Bettyís shoulders seemed to come alive just for the purpose of gasping and falling silent again.

Suddenly, I wanted to pounce on that woman, seize her like a life preserver, cling to her, inhale her. I felt tears pushing themselves up, ready to explode like water from a broken hydrant.

"Oh, poor thing," the librarian cooed. "Poor, poor little lamb."

But then, I didnít cry. It wasnít just want she called meĖPoor little lambóbut everything unsaid that I heard clinging to it. Syrupy pity. Superiority. The nasty little troll called piety.

I donít think anything happens more completely than when one intense emotion suddenly turns into its opposite. A stubborn resistance swelled in this poor little lamb. No tears. Not a crack in the plumbing. And once I didnít cry, I was okay. Time started again. I felt heat flow up the sides of my face and with it Ė Revenge! -- a sudden desire to send that librarian flying backwards, fiercely, so that she would go crashing through the plate glass doors.

I glared at her. I glared daggers, dirks, machetes, epees, broadswords, lancets, scalpels. "Oh shut the fuck up, you nosy Nazi," I said.

Her face dropped in horror. Then, I ran off, shaking with laughter, through the book check-in, past the Reserve desk. I ducked around a corner and pressed myself against a bookshelf, breathing hard, heart pounding with both dread and hope that the librarian, outrage blowing out of her ears, would chase me down.

But it was Betty who came marching around the corner, mink heads bobbing on her shoulders, the clomping of her old shoes with their turned-up puckered toes. As metal to magnet, I followed her through the maze of floor-to-ceiling bookcases and glowing computer screens. "We need this book," she said, grabbing at random. "And this one and this one and this one and this one." People jumped to get out of our way.

When we finally got to our table, which was tucked away in a remote, windowless corner, third floor art history section, Betty dropped the tower of books she had collected, the sound echoing on the wood like a slap. Then, she dumped the contents of her backpack on the table. Lipsticks, sticky candy wrappers, tampons, sugar packets, keys, napkins, a half-eaten apple, matches, stubs of Camels, pennies, scraps of paper with every bit of white covered in her tiny barbed-wire handwriting.

"Itís here somewhere," she kept saying.

I tried to tame her agitation. "Oh Betty. Listen to this. I memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements. Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, rhymes with moron..."

That got her attention all right, but not in the way I expected. By the time I got to Oxygen, Bettyís whole body was twitching as if sheíd had an allergic reaction. Still, I couldnít stop myself. "Fluorine, " I continued reciting, "Neon, Sodium." She lashed out with her right hand, which landed flat and wide over my mouth, like a gas mask.

"No science," she snapped. "Sir Isaac Newton. Mister A. Einstein. Two tit-sucking emperors with no clothes. Understand?"

Of course, I didnít, but I nodded yes, a quick, urgent head-shake and she unclamped my mouth. "Science wonít save your life," she preached on. "Too much brain. Turns us all into a bunch of robots. Robots!"

Oh, I could feel her revving up. All her self-control was fracturing and I knew from experience that I had only a short period of time to apply a splint. "No robots, Betty. Weíre not robots."

"God, I need a cigarette. Why donít they let you smoke in here? Think Iíll burn down the place?" She did a double-take at something behind me. "And look at that sign!" I turned to where she was pointing. I didnít dare not turn. A poster: Books are Your Friends. "Friends! Lies! Mindlessness! Youíd think there was some kind of glory in stupidity."

"Youíre right, Betty. Itís stupid. Really stupid. What a stupid sign."

"Okay, okay, enough. Donít be a kiss ass, Ann. Nobody likes a kiss ass."

It was then that she noticed a book at the far end of the table. I could almost hear her eyes landing on it. She pushed it in front of me and tapped her index finger hard on the cover.

"This bypasses the brain and goes right to the source. We wonít leave until you commit this to memory," she said, her voice a rigid steel.

Something to memorize. Familiar territory. I was relieved and grateful for the diversion.

But what was it? It was not like any book Betty had ever foisted on me before. There were mostly lines and little raisins bunched on spidery branches. I knew enough to know that it was music. But how was I supposed to store it in my head? How could any of my reliable tricks of memory Ė the clever mnemonics I discovered, the analogies that I teased out Ė how could any of it work without words?

In frustration and annoyance, I forgot myself, forgot who I was with, and pushed the book away with a bossy little shove. Betty slid it back. And before I knew it, she slapped her open palm on the back of my head and forced my face onto the open pages. The smell of dust and ink rushed up to meet me.

"This is for your own good," she snapped. She let go of my neck, but when I started to inch away, I felt the sharp point of her fingernail pierce into my thigh.

I can say for a fact that I tried. I really tried. I told myself: Dots look like periods and periods end sentences, thoughts, topics. But so many periods! What thoughts do they signal the end of ? What new ideas are they ushering in?

Or maybe I should connect the dots, find a pattern, and something important will be revealed to me, something that has been in front of my face all this time. But which dot to begin with? What direction to go? In the silence of the library, the rustle as I turned the pages sounded like falling bricks.

"Betty, Iím hungry," I whispered. "I have to pee."

She looked at me without expression, her face white and powdery, and dug in her nail even deeper. "Do you want to give up? Do you?" She asked this in a hissing hysterical way that sounded to me as if she were asking, "Do you want to kill us both? Do you?"

So why did I just sit there? Why didnít I puff up my chest, grab a pencil and stab it at her hand, yelling like a charging warrior. YEEEEEEE! Even now, Iím not sure why I didnít. Only that I must have taken her literally Ė thatís the way my mind worked. I must have convinced myself that this was truly a matter of life and death.

So this was how it went. Minute after minute, hour after hour, I pitted my own patience against my own confusion until I let go of any hope of escaping, any dream of understanding. I cleaned out everything in my head the way some people clean house from top to bottom. I obliterated myself. Nothing was left but the point of Bettyís nail, like it was inoculating me against something unspeakable and horrible.

I must have fallen asleep. Because my next memory was of The Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Ballet flying through the air. Then, the Physiciansí Desk Reference 1993 hit the floor across the room.

Heads lifted from their necks and swiveled in our direction as if they were run by hydraulics. Betty threw more books and arms went up in defense. An alarm ringing. Shouts. Screams. People running. The sound of my own breathing, the taste of my own tongue.

And then, all went silent as Betty plopped forward at the waist, arms spread, face flat against the table, a puppet whose strings had been snipped.

"The child," I heard someone say. "Donít put the child at risk."

And then: "I think itís okay. Sheís calm now."

But I could have told them different. Betty was only on idle. A wail went up and then her wails filled the library. This was not everyday sorrow, but anguish drawn from every book on every shelf, every tragedy ever written, anguish of Biblical proportions.

I felt fingers prying Bettyís nails from my leg. I felt myself being lifted under the armpits. I was up in the air. My arms and legs flailed, but then all the kick went out of me.

A voice, from what seemed to be a long way off, kept cooing: "Poor little lamb. Poor little lamb."



Jill Wolfson is a writer whose work has appeared in Salon.com, The Sun Magazine and many regional publications around the country. Her non-fiction book, "Somebody Elseís Children" (Crown), looks at six children caught up in the juvenile justice system. She also teaches writing to delinquents. She is currently working on a novel about the "sisterhood" of foster children and delinquents, from which this short story is drawn.


 
 
 
 

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