My sixth-grade teacher didn’t call students by their real names, but by nicknames that he invented for us. The names were unavoidable. He used them every day at roll call.
He called Eric Munn “Munnster,” and called a girl who’d dyed her hair “Blondie.” These names were harmless, but others seemed cruel. One boy got nicknamed “Liar,” because he’d supposedly cheated on a test and lied about it, and another was called “Criminal,” because he’d allegedly stolen a wallet, from someone else in class. I felt especially sorry for “Flowerboy,” who’d gotten his name after another student had seen him selling flowers on a street corner.
My teacher called me “Professor,” because I almost always had the right answers in class. This was the worst name he could possibly have given me, as I was already considered a nerd. Whenever I got an answer wrong, he would laugh and say, “You’re not living up to your name, Professor.” In response I’d give him the finger when he wasn’t looking.
One day, we were assigned to make flags of foreign countries. Our teacher gave us an old encyclopedia with pictures of all the flags of the world, and said each of us was to choose one to copy. I and all the other Jewish kids in class wanted Israel, but no two students were allowed to do the same flag, so I ended up with Iceland.
In the middle of the project, my teacher stormed up to me with a boy named Carlos in tow. He snatched the flag from Carlos’s hand and showed it to me: a half-finished Nazi flag. “What do you think of this?” my teacher asked.
I didn’t know what to say. I told him it was a Nazi flag.
“And what did the Nazis do?” he demanded.
I said that they killed a lot of Jews in the Holocaust.
Turning to Carlos, he said, “Did you hear that? They killed people. They killed millions of people.”
I felt horrible. Carlos had no way of knowing about the Holocaust; he could hardly speak English. He was just drawing a flag that appeared in the old encyclopedia. From then on, Carlos’s nickname was “Nazi.”
Granada Hills, California
My father’s name was Avraham in Hebrew, Avrum in Yiddish, and Abram in Polish, but at Ellis Island, in 1946, a short, wiry immigration clerk with a receding hairline told him, “Your name is now Albert.”
I suppose an American name was better than being nameless altogether, as my father had been for three years during the Holocaust, when a sympathetic Christian family had saved his life by burying him alive in a hole. They’d dropped potatoes down to him when they could, and nothing at all when the Nazi soldiers marched through their village, or when not-so-sympathetic Poles were on Jew hunts, looking to earn some extra butter for turning in a dead Jew.
Upon arriving in America, my father went to Philadelphia to live with his well-to-do uncle, Sol, who would have been Shloima in Yiddish, Shlomo in Hebrew, and Srulek in Polish — but he had come to America in 1925 and become Sol.
Uncle Sol was a beautiful man with deep-set, wild-looking eyes. On the wraparound porch of his house on Woodlawn Avenue, he looked at my father with those wild eyes and said, “Avrumele” (Avrumele means “little Avrum”), “you can work in my candle factory.” Sol’s offer was not as generous as it sounded. Avrumele came home at night with bleeding calluses on his hands from pulling long chains weighed down by heavy, hot wax. The factory made fancy candles for weddings and bar mitzvahs. (We still have a pair of wedding candles from Uncle Sol’s factory, ones with thick, curled wax leaves and pink wax flowers.)
But my father hadn’t given up his name to spend his life in America soaking his calluses, and after six months, Albert left Uncle Sol’s factory to work in another sweatshop. This time, however, he had a plan: he would learn the business and buy out the owner of the small and floundering embroidery company. My father had a key made so he could come in after hours and learn the different machines. Before long, Albert could run each of them: the puffer, the quilter, and (my favorite) the snowman machine, which sewed snowmen on four snowsuits at once. A few months later, Albert bought the shop with five hundred dollars he’d been given by Uncle Sol.
As owner, my father was good to his employees. To the Irish, Vietnamese, and black workers he hired, he became Big Al, and he bought everyone lunch on a regular basis.
At home, my father’s name became Daddy — even to my mom. I used to think it strange that she, too, called him Daddy. Later, as a twenty-year-old feminist, I thought it outrageous. But now I no longer bristle when my mother and I share memories of my father and remember him — Avrumele, Albert, Big Al — as Daddy.
Whenever one of my appliances breaks down, I call Ernie the repairman. “Hi,” I say, “this is Beret calling.”
“Who?” Ernie says.
“Beret. Beret Borsos.”
“Yes,” I say, “that’s right,” so we can move on to my broken washing machine.
We’ve had this same conversation repeatedly over the years. At the end of it, I always give him my address, and he says, “I’ve been there before!” The friend who recommended Ernie says he sometimes wants to hit him over the head with a hammer, but he’s a good repairman.
Ernie looks at my washer and tells me what part to buy at the hardware store so I can fix it myself. I tell him I want him to fix it; that’s why I called. I used to wait in another room while he was working, just to avoid talking to him, but he kept calling, “Bert? Bert?” When he’s all done I make out a check and hand it to him. “Hey,” he says, “how did you know my last name?” I tell him I just know.
As he leaves, I wave goodbye from the front door. He waves back. Then, at the end of the walk, he suddenly whirls around, shoots out an arm at me, and says, “Beret!” He laughs and wags his finger. “Beret!” he shouts again.
North Vancouver, British Columbia
I left the University of Michigan in 1977 to marry Selo Blackcrow, an Oglala Sioux spiritual leader on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
One of the first things I learned when I moved to Pine Ridge was that I didn’t want an Indian name. I’d seen other newcomers receive names, and they were uniformly unflattering. One woman was given the name Snake Eyes. A writer was called Rocks in His Head. A visiting millionaire was dubbed Big Bucks Man, and Ask Him for More. My own two sons didn’t fare much better: one was called Vanilla Pudding, the other a name that best translates as Coyote Trotting and Shitting as He Trots. So I knew I didn’t want an Indian name, but I would receive several nonetheless.
My first Indian name was my legal one: Blackcrow. But did anyone on the reservation call me Dorothy Blackcrow? No, they called me Selo-Taichu — Selo’s Old Lady. And to this day, many old men recognize me by this name alone.
My second Indian name was Wiyan Tanka, or Big Boss Woman, but I didn’t know it until I heard my relatives talking in Lakota about this bad, bossy person, and I realized they were talking about me! It was true: I thought I had all the ideas and was sure that I knew just what to do to make things better. After I discovered my new name, however, I learned to shut up and listen to find out what was really needed, and then quietly help someone else do it.
My third Indian name was Watoto Wiyan, or Greeny-Greeny Woman; I was given this name by the medicine man Leonard Crow Dog when I served him peas. They were really nice peas, just picked, and so tiny and sweet I didn’t even cook them; I just put them in a bowl, as a delicacy. But when Leonard saw them, he got a funny look on his face and said, “What’s this? You trying to poison me or something, feeding me little green poison pills?” After that I fed medicine men traditional Indian foods and saved my salads for those who would eat them.
My fourth Indian name was Pispiza Wiyan, or Prairie Dog Woman, because by that time I’d grown a little rounder. Also, we had buried our trailer into the side of a hill to make it warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and when people came to visit, I would emerge from my “hole” to greet them.
My fifth Indian name, Sipsipila Wiyan, or Leaping in the Air Woman, was given to me by Charlotte Black Elk at a conference on South Dakota history. A number of us were sitting around a table listening to a keynote speaker make false statements about the Sioux land claim to the sacred Black Hills. It got so bad that some Lakota people quietly left the room. But I leapt up, pounded the table with a saltshaker, and interrupted the speaker to correct some of the factual errors.
My sixth Indian name, Chante Tanka Wiyan, or Brave-Hearted Woman, came to me after a man burst into my classroom and threatened to kill one of my students. The man was six-foot-five and had a knife in one hand and a sawed-off shotgun in the other, but I don’t allow anyone to upset my classes. I took him by his belt buckle (which was right in front of my nose) and backed him slowly but firmly toward the door, saying, “If you want to kill somebody, you’ll have to wait outside until we’re done.” He smashed all the pickups in the parking lot, but he did not kill my student. Afterward, my knees shook so much that I couldn’t work the clutch to drive home.
My last Indian name means the most to me: Pte Wakan Wiyan, or Sacred Buffalo Woman. I spent eleven years trying to raise a herd of buffalo inside a fenced pasture to protect them from poachers, so that they might be used for sacred purposes like honoring feasts, memorial dinners, and sun dances. When I heard myself called this, I knew I finally had a name worth keeping.
Dorothy Blackcrow Mack
Paul and I were the only white kids in our seventh-grade class. In the years leading up to 1968, a whole flock of white families had left our inner-city Detroit neighborhood for the suburbs, but our families had stayed. My parents believed in integration and were dedicated to the city. Although I was proud of them and proud to be attending public school, I dreaded getting into and out of the building each day because of the gangs that roamed the school grounds. Paul got his share of beatings; I had never seen blood so red and thick. While I avoided being jumped by sticking to elaborate escape routes, Paul just walked a straight line to and from the front door. I worried about Paul plenty, but only after I was done worrying about myself.
What really saved me during those years, besides an ability to keep a low profile, was my black friends who looked after me. On many occasions, my friends warned me of gang activity, giving me a chance to duck out early, skipping my last class and slipping out my favorite back door. Archie was usually the one to deliver such warnings, and he risked getting a bad reputation — not to mention a beating — for doing it. But Archie was as brave as he was broad-minded. The first time we met, he stuck out his hand and asked my name. “Hugh White,” I replied. Archie cocked his head, hesitated, and repeated my name under his breath: “Hugh White . . . and you is white. I’ll be damned!”
I have a curious occupation: job coach for a team of mentally retarded janitorial workers in a huge, stuffy military building. My employees do their jobs well, but behavioral problems sometimes surface.
A few months ago I worked with Robert, a big, gentle soul with some strange habits. For example, after eating a banana at lunch, Robert would devour the peel without using his hands, like a snake. He had previously worked in a small, secluded laundry room, and the gigantic building, with its thousands of workers, overwhelmed him. To handle his fear, Robert had developed a cathartic ritual: he shouted out the names of old friends. The shouting started low and built to a crescendo, at which point Robert squinted his eyes and made biting motions. To the regimented military men on their way to and from power meetings, Robert appeared to be a maniac. (Personally, I was far more unnerved by the power-hungry men plotting killing strategies in bulletproof rooms all around me.)
Sometimes after work I would hear Robert’s chant in my head and find myself repeating the names without thinking. I could see how the ritual was comforting for Robert. The names of friends created a wall of familiarity to shield against the strangers in suits all around him.
One day, my bosses told me Robert would be let go: his yelling of names occurred too frequently, and could not be tolerated. I felt for Robert, and fantasized about going out on the balcony with him and shouting the names of his friends together till our throats burned.
The next day, Robert was gone.
While taking part in a training fellowship at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, I briefly worked at the Metabolic Clinic there — the court of last resort in that part of the country for parents of children with undiagnosed “inborn errors of metabolism.” These parents, despite extensive and expensive consultations with physicians all over the state, still didn’t know what made their children “different.” Typically, their children were “developmentally delayed,” below average in mental, physical, and emotional function; often they had “facial anomalies” or other disfiguring physical features. Unlike such better-known conditions as Down’s syndrome, the genetic “errors” these kids had been born with were rare enough that most physicians never encountered them, even over a long career.
A typical visit went like this: An anxious, guilty mom (moms seemed to feel the most responsible for the child’s impairment) and a worried dad brought their child to this group of ten or so physicians, nutritionists, and psychologists hoping to find out, finally, after all these years, what was wrong. The child looked funny or even bizarre, and perhaps was unable to walk or talk, stared blankly, drooled, was incontinent, or got sick a lot. After a review of previous test results, and perhaps another round of tests, the parents came back for the diagnosis, and were told that their child had a very rare genetic disorder called . . .
The names of these disorders were usually the strung-together surnames of the physicians who had first “identified” them, and therefore sounded like the names of law firms — “Sears, Anderson, Cohen syndrome,” or the like. The parents were then told that there was no known treatment for their child beyond the customary “management” of mentally and physically impaired kids. If the parents asked, the doctors said their child probably would not live into adulthood — although with these rare disorders, not much was known about prognosis. So the parents left the clinic with, essentially, a name for the child’s condition and nothing else.
At first, I expected to see these parents dissolve in grief. How terrible it must be, I thought, to come all this way after all this time, only to be told that nothing can be done and your child will in all probability deteriorate and die an early death. I was surprised to find, instead, that the parents seemed relieved. At least now they knew what to call it.
I’ve always known I was adopted. From the time I could first understand, my adoptive parents told me that I was special and that they didn’t have to take me, but chose me. For composition assignments in high school and college, I argued in favor of closed adoptions, and, up until two months ago, my interest in my biological family was a mild curiosity at best. Then I read a novel written by a birth mother that depicted the other side of adoption, and all at once I had to know where I’d come from and who my birth mother was.
Court order in hand, I made the four-hour trip to the courthouse in the county where my adoption had taken place. I waited anxiously as the clerk found the file. Then, as she unsealed it, I eagerly anticipated reading my birth mother’s name for the first time. Instead of her name, however, the first thing my eyes lit upon was my name — the one my birth mother had given me. Before that moment, I’d never even considered the existence of this name. Suddenly, I felt as if my current identity were somehow false. At the very least, here was proof (not that I’d ever doubted it) that I had another family out there.
I have since found my birth mother. But it was my first glimpse of that other name that truly turned me around: for a week after seeing the court files, I’d look into the mirror and think, Heidi, and wonder what life I’d be leading now had that remained my name.
My friend E. is submitting a Readers Write piece on the subject of “Names.” I know this because he told me so, and also because I happened to see his submission — or at least the first three words of it: “Julie and I . . .” I couldn’t read any further. Julie. Damn her. It’s always about Julie. If I didn’t think she was still alive, I’d say E. was haunted by her ghost. What I know about her I learned one night when, after a bottle of wine, E. opened up a bit and told me about this Julie, the embodiment of all that is worthy in his world.
She was a nurse. They were very much in love, so he took her home to France, to meet his family. While there, she began to have trouble hearing. Later, back in the States, her doctor discovered she had a tumor on the aural nerve that would require lengthy and risky surgery to remove. The operation was successful in saving her life, but left damage that permanently altered her personality; she — and their love — was never the same.
That was almost two decades ago. Julie has since married another man, moved to another town, charted another course in life. And she has left E. quite shipwrecked. I wonder if she knows how much E. is haunted by the ghost of the lover she used to be.
Julie and I discovered a small clearing on one of our long walks in the woods in western France. The clearing overlooked a deep gorge that seemed recently created, for only young poplars clung to its slopes. Perhaps a World War II bomb had landed there. In any case, it soon became our favorite spot. There, huddled beneath a blanket, braving fog and drizzle, we would make love until we were both steaming and exhausted. Julie would often cry in the middle of her quiet orgasms, her tears mingling with the raindrops in her hair, like precious pearls on strands of silk. Afterward, we would lie there in each other’s embrace on a soft mattress of dead leaves. A small tree that offered us protection from the weather became a trusted friend, an accomplice of sorts. We carved our names in its soft bark using hairpins.
Some fifteen years later, I returned to our spot, alone this time; Julie had since gotten married. The tree had grown tall, but our names were still visible, the bark growing into the carved letters, as if to protect them against the ravages of time.
Someday this tree will die, and with it our carved names, too, will disappear.
I was my father’s third son, but the first to whom he thought to give his name, the same name his father had given him. Of the three generations of boys named William Leo Ross, I have fared the best. My grandfather was a violent, mean-spirited alcoholic who died alone and under mysterious circumstances in a boarding house. I never knew him. My father, also a drunkard, died when I was only fifteen months old. The circumstances of his death were not mysterious: Hodgkin’s disease — a type of cancer that is often curable these days — killed him at the age of thirty-three, a year younger than I am now.
I was the youngest of the five children my father left behind, and the only one whose birth he witnessed sober. He’d joined Alcoholics Anonymous only eight months before he was diagnosed, and for the first time in his life he had a steady job and was supporting his family.
My mother never talked about her dead husband, and I grew up aching to know more about him. In my early twenties, I got to know my father’s two brothers, Jimmy and George, and through them I received the precious few stories I have about my dad. There is one I hold most dear: My Uncle Jimmy was visiting my ailing father soon after I was born. I lay in my cradle nearby. “Jesus, Jimmy,” my father said, “that goddamn medicine they got me on doused my fire — know what I mean? I couldn’t get it up for months. Then one morning I woke up with a hard-on. I yelled down to Janie, ‘Quick, honey, get up here!’ Nine months later, this little bastard came crawling out.”
Plenty of people have names that rhyme — famous people, even: Faye Wray, the actress; Harry Carey, the voice of the Chicago Cubs. For some reason, however, their names have never seemed as bad as mine: Paul Hall. It is profoundly nonmelodious, almost primitive, a strikingly unsophisticated name conferred upon me by unimaginative parents.
When I once asked my mother what impulse drove her to saddle me with this name, she blithely responded, “Paul is a nice name.”
What astounds me is that I’m not alone. Whenever I travel or move to a new community, I check the local phone book to see if it contains any other Paul Halls, and invariably it does, sometimes more than one; in highly populated areas, maybe even several. With a chill, I realize there are perhaps thousands of us with the clubfooted, hunchbacked name Paul Hall.
I once worked for a man named Jim Smith. He took great pride in his pedestrian appellation and every year traveled to a convention of Jim Smiths. I would not like to attend a convention of Paul Halls, all of us flinching and twitching like bats exposed to light.
My father was born Samuel Lebowitz, second of four sons to my Rumanian immigrant grandparents, who’d arrived in New York around the turn of the century. When he and two of his brothers graduated from college with engineering degrees, their parents decided to change the family name. (In the late forties, it was commonly known that Jewish engineers had fewer employment opportunities than their Christian counterparts.) My grandfather opened the phone book to the page containing his family name and slid his finger down the column, stopping at Leeds. Later, an attorney suggested that my father’s first name was also “too Jewish.” Thus, my father became Sherwood Leeds, and he went by that name for the rest of his life.
The name change, however, did not entirely serve its purpose. My father and one of his brothers did get hired by the government, but within several years they were both suspended from their positions, accused, along with a number of other Jewish government employees, of being Communists. One piece of evidence used against my father was a comment he had made during a private conversation in his office: “You can’t condemn an entire people. Not every Communist is bad.” Another piece of evidence — used against both my father and his brother — was that they had associated with each other. After many months of hearings, during which reams of so-called evidence about my relatives’ private lives was presented, all charges were dropped.
These events took place before I was born. My father never told me about them — not the name change, not the McCarthy hearings. I pieced the story together from the sparse responses I’d received to occasional questions, and from papers scattered in our basement — old postcards addressed to Sam Lebowitz and a dusty file of character references written on my father’s behalf.
I wonder sometimes about the impact all this had on my father. I remember him as a person courageous enough to stand alone on principle. Yet he had one habit that seemed inconsistent with his character: whenever we spoke about certain topics in public, he would lower his voice and move in close, as if someone else might be listening.
My father was a staunch supporter of civil rights and had a sometimes overwhelming fondness for Negroes (as blacks were called in the fifties). One day, I and some neighborhood kids were choosing sides for stickball. A boy named David was doing eenie-meenie-miney-mo, and just as he was getting to the “catch a nigger” part, I saw my dad walking up the street toward us. “Don’t say nigger,” I told David just as Dad came within earshot. “It’s a bad word. Just say robber.”
Dad stopped and smiled down on me. Then he patted me on the head and said, “Atta girl, and I’m proud of you.”
Forty years later, I can still feel the good touch of his hand.
At seventeen I was impulsive and thirsty for the kind of adventure only money, and lots of it, could provide. Knowing no other source of fast money, I got a job at a massage parlor. The boss asked me what name I’d be using; most of the girls used aliases to protect their privacy. The idea of a new identity seemed glamorous and mysterious. I settled on Shawna, a feminine version of my ex-boyfriend’s name.
Since then, I’ve had more than a dozen aliases: Desire was arrested twice for prostitution while working as an escort, and Paulina walked away from a brothel one winter night after a pimp beat his whore all over the parking lot, leaving scarlet puddles in the fresh-fallen snow. In California, I became Paris St. George, female mud-wrestler; Monique, exotic ballerina; and Elizabeth, submissive slave at an S&M dungeon. Athena modeled for artists, and Stella danced flamenco.
Finally, at thirty-seven, I’m back at the massage parlor as Hope. After all these years of being different people, maybe someday I’ll discover who I really am.
I was an accident. I know this because my mom, in a breathtaking display of tactlessness, told me so when I was about seven. This is not something I recommend parents do if they want their children to someday forgive them their mistakes and flaws.
My name, too, as Mom told it, was an accident. She was anticipating another girl baby, to maintain the boy-girl-boy sequence she’d established with my three older siblings. But then I came along. When Father Mattocks showed up at the hospital to arrange for my baptism, he asked my mom what she was going to call me. Not having any boys’ names ready, she said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll call him Mark Anthony!” (She was “in the theater” and inclined toward the dramatic, so this pronouncement struck her as amusing.)
“Good choice!” Father Mattocks said, and wrote it down.
I guess, between his hospital visit and the baptism some weeks later, my mom decided either that she liked the name, or that it was too much trouble to change it on the baptismal papers. In any case, I was stuck with it.
I like the name Mark, and I don’t particularly mind the name Anthony, but Mark Anthony Hetts doesn’t work for me. So I don’t normally use my middle name, and this, too, creates a problem. In addition to having a thud-thud sound, “Mark Hetts” doesn’t translate well across telephone lines, due to the juxtaposition of the k and the H. When I leave messages for people, they think that someone named Mark Katz called, or Marquettes, or Markets, or even Marv Getz.
Trying to launch a midlife career as a writer, I thought for a while that I should come up with a really great nom de plume. I even sat down and made a list; Elwood Zolton Penmark (E. Zolton Penmark in literary circles, no doubt) was my favorite. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my name and I had become quite close over four decades. I worried that, if I abandoned it for another, my real name might float around somewhere in the ether, pining for me and feeling lonely. After all this time, it seemed a mean thing to do to my awkward little friend.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
When I was five my mother saw me part my scarecrow legs and touch myself through my yellow sunsuit. Without a word, she took me to the bathroom, where she stripped off my clothes, laid me down on the cold tile floor, and poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol over my vagina. Apparently, what she had witnessed me doing was so hideous in her mind that I needed to be “cleansed,” sterilized. Lying on the floor, I tried not to belong to her anymore. The next day, I crept back into that bathroom and cut off all my hair — the first of many acts of self-mutilation.
Later, during my she-loved-me-the-best-way-she-knew-how period, I dropped my middle name and replaced it with my mother’s maiden name in a desperate attempt to reconnect with the mother I needed so badly. In the I-belong-to-myself-and-nobody-else era, I refused to take my husband’s name, instead clinging steadfastly to my father’s, which was all the legacy I had from him. I soon began trying on new names the way people try on shoes, but nothing fit quite right. Briefly, I even went with a Chinese name because I loved the way it felt on my tongue, and because it would forever divorce me from my former identity.
By the time all the therapy bills were paid, I knew that I deserved a name I loved, a name that fit, that was a joy to write and speak. After two years of looking and listening, it finally came to me.
My dad was a good provider. Six days a week, he was gone to work before I got out of bed, and often he didn’t come home until after I had gone to sleep. But on Sundays he stayed home, a brooding, somber presence in our house. We were so unaccustomed to having Dad around that on Sundays everyone, including my mother, was tense. My dad was never abusive or physically intimidating, but he was a stranger in our lives — a big, domineering stranger.
Early Sunday mornings he would roust my older brother and sister out of bed, saying, “You have time to play, you have time to pray” — his way of letting them know he didn’t appreciate how they spent their Saturday nights. We would all go off to Sunday school and church, then come home and eat lunch, after which we would work in the yard under his direction, or inside if the weather was bad. In the late afternoon, he would give us time off to play with our friends, do homework, or listen to records. The youngest child of three, I was very shy and didn’t have many friends. Sometimes, on those afternoons, my father would tolerate my presence while he drank his Manhattan, watched Wide World of Sports, and lighted his cigar.
At those moments he transformed into a relaxed, unintimidating man. He still had nothing much to say to me, though, so he talked to me about his cigars.
He explained that a cigar’s name meant something about its size or shape or color. Short, fat cigars were Robustos, or Churchill Minors. Big ones were Grand Coronas, and one monster cigar was named the Lusitania. Maduros had dark wrappers and were harsher than the lighter-colored cigars, which were wrapped in “Connecticut shade” tobacco leaves grown under huge tents that let in just the right amount of sun. Inevitably, the Churchills, Rothschilds, and Lusitanias each came with a history lesson about the cigar’s namesake. I learned that the best cigars came from Cuba, but we couldn’t get them here because of an embargo and something called the Bay of Pigs.
I probably thought a lot of what he told me was made up. The place names were as exotic as those in a bedtime story: Jamaica, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Cameroon, the Canary Islands. Though I retained little of what he taught me, the names washed over me like an absolution.
Michael A. Becker
Cleaning out a closet recently, I found a ratty Baby Drowsy doll. Her faded cloth body was threadbare, her puffy white stuffing poking through in places. Her plastic head and hands were soft and smelled of Ivory soap. Her blue eyes were half closed, her lips slightly parted, as if in a sigh. Her coarse blond hair, faded to a sandy gray, was still done up in a ponytail atop her head, though the green elastic band holding the strands in place had long since deteriorated. She had a string that, when pulled, used to produce a mechanical voice from a box buried inside her, but the string no longer came out when I tugged on it, and I didn’t remember what she’d said. Stitched into her side was a rectangular white tag, and on the back was written, “Allison Sax,” in black magic-marker letters.
Allison Sax — the name I’d had until I was five years old. I’d almost forgotten it. My mom had married and divorced frequently during my childhood, and changed my surname with each new wedding vow.
I tried now to remember who Allison Sax had been, but I couldn’t quite recall. I wondered if Baby Drowsy knew, for her body was flattened on one side where that child had held her close, and her hands and face were smeared with dirt and tiny fingerprints — my fingerprints. I must have played with her often, she felt so familiar in my arms. I must have loved her, because I had tears in my eyes as I buried my face in her musty hair. I wanted her to speak just one last time, to tell me who I was when she knew me well.
Long Beach, New York