He looked at me--
and I at him--right before
his encore. His eyes
turned into keys and mine
beautifully aware. Yes,
yes, that's how I'd
twenty-two years old, standing
in the second row, feeling
his eyes, his blessing, his
acknowledgement of my
presence at his concert,
and in the world.
There was nothing wrong with crossing his arms while sitting at a stop light, Luke told himself. That was how he was feeling today: in an arms-crossed type of mood, his hands locked into place and unmoving. A nice change.
A Bob Dylan song played on the radio in his car. The windshield wipers seemed to keep time with the beat, and the sound of rain provided an unremitting backdrop that almost accompanied Dylan’s unmistakable vocals. Luke turned the heat up and glanced into his rearview mirror, taking sight of the city's bright lights. For a moment, he wondered what it would be like to drive with his eyes closed. How would it feel to drive blindfolded, listening to Dylan the whole way home, as if he were on some semi-slow-motion roller coaster? He liked that idea.
Luke had his foot on the brake pedal and his eyes focused on the light, waiting for it to turn green. It was one of those “five minute stop lights,” the kind that made Luke think that he would be waiting there forever. But he had nowhere to go but home.
He never knew where the man with rotting teeth who walked the streets was going, though. He always seemed lost. Never carried a map. Forgot to pinpoint his destination years ago, it seemed. Luke spotted this tall and skinny man a few feet away, hurriedly making his way toward the railroad tracks.
He was wearing dark denim jeans, a black sweater, and white tennis shoes. He had a backpack slung over his left shoulder but no umbrella over his head that would keep him sheltered from the cold droplets of rain. Luke had seen the man around and always wondered if he was homeless. His belongings showed signs of wear and his spirits, just the same.
Luke turned around and looked at his backseat; for a moment, he imagined the man sitting back there, looking out the window in silence. Instead, Luke saw a brown suitcase, a baseball hat, and a red flashlight taking up space on the floor. An old water bottle looked rightfully in place because it could silently roll around when the car was in motion.
What Luke liked most about the city in which he lived was the constant movement. The pizza place on the corner took pizza out of the oven nearly every three minutes; the local bands were continuously strumming and drumming; the shoppers in the mall never quit going in and out of dressing rooms and twirling about in front of wide mirrors. There were escalators and elevators to ride, as well as plenty of stairs to climb. Hurrying from one place to another was the accepted way of life.
Luke enjoyed observing people. He liked to take note of actions and reactions, always keeping curious. This habit of people-watching appropriately lent itself to Luke obtaining a career as a greeting card writer. His application to the Cause I Said So Card Company was immediately accepted ten years ago on the basis that he would create positive reactions for recipients upon opening their cards and reading the sentiments inside.
This was an easy job for Luke. The difficult part was maintaining that he worked in the advertising department at a candy factory when his friends inquired about his career. Being a greeting card writer was a job that required no secrecy; Luke simply chose to establish that himself because he longed to witness genuine reactions from the people who received his cards, including his friends.
Writing greeting cards--whether they be thank you, get well soon, holiday, thinking of
you, special occasion or birthday cards--was not only a rewarding career, but also a lonely one.
Luke considered himself the most sentimental man in the history of lonely men. His family members lived 600 miles away. His friends were seasonal: he only saw Von in the winter, Chris in the summer, Pete in the fall, and Jim in the spring. His wife never existed because he never found one. He gave up his search five summers ago when he was turned down by a fashionable brunette who always wore her hair in a ponytail.
Luke’s favorite place in the city was a café that housed the smell of fresh-baked bread and vanilla bean coffee. A regular, he ordered the same thing every Wednesday: a turkey sandwich on French bread and an extra large ginger peach tea. The total always came to $8.25 and he would insist that the polite cashier keep the change from the $10 bill. Luke spent his time in the café completing crossword puzzles while eavesdropping on conversations that ranged from business to casual. Occasionally, he would read a magazine. He looked forward to watching other regulars enter the café; they would nod and he would reciprocate.
His routine went something like this: after his lunch at the café, he would stop by the greeting card shop less than a mile away. It was there that Luke would find some of his very own greeting cards lining the aisles. He would pick out a few cards, purchase them, and make a quick stop at the newsstand a block away before returning to his apartment. This routine would seem to negate the very purpose of his job--considering that he was being paid to make the cards, only to use his paycheck to buy them--but such a thought never occurred to him. He was determined to prove to strangers that other strangers care.
Browsing through the newspaper at the kitchen table in his apartment, he’d write down the names of the people who appeared in the obituaries, the newborns in the birth announcements, the couples celebrating their golden wedding anniversaries. There seemed to be no shortage of people that Luke could look up in the telephone book. Once he copied all of the addresses onto a blank sheet of white paper, he’d begin the task of filling out each card. He didn’t write much, mostly because what was printed was his writing in the first place, and it was just enough to get his point across. Luke simply signed his name—“A friend in the neighborhood.” He mailed a handful of cards every week, paying the increasingly high postage fees without any complaints.
His favorite card-giving memories came while he sat in the café, slowly sipping his hot tea. If there was ever a time he could get away with putting a few “Have a Great Day!” cards on empty tables, he would do so. Then he would secretly watch his recipients open the cards and express confused reactions, which were immediately followed by smiles. Oftentimes there came a sweet comment regarding the sender’s random act of kindness. These cards contained no money, no gift cards, no coupons—just the element of surprise.
There were times when Luke couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever be discovered, if his handwriting would give him away.
One day, it did.
The cashier at the café compared his handwriting from the crossword puzzle to the card she received from him on her birthday.
“So you’re the secret greeting card giver-awayer?” she asked with a smile.
Luke winked and walked away, carrying his food and drink back to his favorite table. He wasn’t sure how she figured him out, but he wasn’t upset. If anything, he sensed that she would keep his secret.
The rain refused to let up and Luke’s windshield wipers continued to swiftly dust off the raindrops. He thought to himself that today was the first day he had seen that homeless man in nearly a month. He wondered what he had been up to all this time.
Just as Luke was about to yawn one of those never-ending yawns, the stoplight turned green. He made his way up the hill leading to his apartment. It wasn’t until he was about to turn onto his street that he saw a man lying face-down on the side of the street. Luke automatically put on his four-ways and hopped out of the car in a panic.
Once he got closer to the limp body, he recognized the clothing and pushed the man’s
shoulder a little toward the sky so that he could see his face and confirm that it was him. It was.
It looked as if the man had fallen, but he appeared to have a black eye and a bloody lip. Luke assumed that he had gotten beat up, but there was no reason for anyone to commit such a crime. This man had never bothered anyone in the community. Luke tried to take his pulse as he stared at his back, hoping to see some kind of upward and downward motion that would signify that he was still breathing. Once he found a pulse, he called 911 and waited for the police to arrive.
The homeless man's demeanor intrigued Luke. It was obvious that he didn’t have any money to spend and had very little in the way of social skills, which may have contributed to his isolation. Perhaps this is what made Luke sympathize for him. Last month, Luke decided to go out of his way by purchasing him a “Thinking of You” card and placing in it a $20 bill, as well as a gift card to a nearby restaurant. It was a step away from Luke's typical card-giving routine, but it was a step that he wanted to take. While on his way to work that particular morning, Luke saw the homeless man walking along the street. Luke upped his pace, his suitcase in one hand and the card in the other. Once he caught up with the man, he tapped him on the shoulder.
“You dropped this,” Luke told him.
“Sure . . . uhhh, no,” the man said, avoiding eye contact.
Luke smiled and assured the man that the card belonged to him.
As Luke waited in desperation for an ambulance, his curiosity got the best of him. He unzipped the man’s backpack and looked through its contents. There, along with a pack of crackers and an empty water bottle, was the card Luke gave the man a month ago.
He hadn’t even opened it.
My brain shuffles a deck of cards as I sit in my English class, watching my Queen of Hearts teacher explain how to label sentences. Subject, predicate, direct object, preposition, conjunction. One of my favorites is the infinitive: to run, to frolic, to sing “Happy Birthday” while washing your goopy hands in a public restroom.
This dark-haired sweetheart of a teacher is explaining to all my joker classmates that an adjective is a part of speech that modifies a noun or pronoun. She writes, “The boy is wearing a blue sweater” on the chalkboard, and I raise my hand to answer that the adjective is the word blue.
“That’s terrific, little girl,” she says.
If my heart were chewing a piece of bubble gum, it would have blown a bubble . . .
. . . because I realize that she can’t remember my name. My name changes every day, that’s why.
Why I have a new name every day of the year is quite simple to explain: my mom and dad fought so much at the time I was born that when they were trying to decide on what to name me that morning in the hospital, a heated argument ensued. The doctors stood around for a few minutes before shaking their heads and carrying me into another room, leaving my parents alone to decide what name I should be referred to for the rest of my life.
“Let’s name her Isis,” my dad suggested. “You know, after that Bob Dylan song.”
“Let’s name her Ana,” my mom sarcastically answered. “You know, after that Beatles song.”
“How about Isis Ana? Or Ana Isis?” Dad asked.
“I don’t think I like either combination,” my mother said. “Maybe we should just name her after my mother, Elaine.”
Dad immediately refused. Legend has it that he almost saw that name coming, too.
“And what about my mother?”
“Your mother has yet to pass away,” she answered.
“Well then forget it, okay? We just won’t name her. It sounds like that’s what the hell you want. She can go by her last name only.”
To further complicate things, my parents weren’t married.
“Your last name or my last name?” my mother asked.
Dad left me after my Mom left my Dad.
Supposedly the two only got along when they went out to eat and Dad’s company paid for the meal. They were together for five years, and according to my older cousin, those five years involved countless battles over money, relatives, and my name. I was told never to believe that I was the reason that their relationship (and engagement) failed. Somehow, however, I managed to convince myself that I was.
At the age of five and a half, I was adopted by my aunt and uncle whose house you could only enter after your vehicle slid down their excruciatingly steep driveway. Their house was one of comfort to me. It had a unique smell that filled my nostrils the way my aunt would fill my favorite Jungle Book cup with warm milk. The pair kept me fed, hydrated, and educated. Unlike my parents, they were in love, and perhaps most importantly, they were also in love with me.
What I loved most about living with my aunt and uncle was the way I could observe them and learn about cooking, music, movies, and sports. I would watch my aunt bake me cinnamon rolls and cupcakes in the kitchen, and then cross into the living room to see my uncle cheer on his favorite football team. I could always see the patch of snuff lodged between his gum and lip at the front of his mouth, but I didn’t mind. In between
commercials, he would sing to me and I loved that sour smell of him singing.
I realized I was different when I got to kindergarten. I was playing in an indoor sandbox with a girl named Laura, who had a broken arm and a stiff purple cast encasing it. After she finished building her mini sandcastle, she told me that she wanted to whisper a secret into my ear.
“I’m a mummy! Tut Tut Tut! What’s your name?” she asked.
I panicked. What was my name? My mind got twisted like an animal balloon, and all I could think about was Mother Goose. Oh, and how I loved rhymes. That’s it. Rhymes.
“My name is Hummy Gummy!”I replied.
Laura laughed and picked up a pile of sand with cupped hands.
“Make a shovel with me,” she said, looking down at her hands and then up at me with her dark brown eyes.
We spent another five minutes shoveling sand into the middle of the box. I wondered if we should add water, perhaps flood the landscape, but my aunt said that it was time to move on to the next station, where a pretty lady would take my fingerprints and then hand me a coloring book complete with farm animals and sea creatures drawn with black, bold lines.
Throughout elementary school, I spent each day introducing myself to my classmates and teachers. Our daily routine involved walking into our homeroom, lining up at the water fountain, and taking turns sipping water. I stood to the left of the water fountain and after each student swallowed the last gulp of water, I shook his or her hand and announced my name for the day.
Kevin Minus was the only person who found it rather impossible to keep up with my consistent name changes.
When we played Red Rover in gym class, Kevin would never know what to shout from across the gymnasium.
“Red Rover, Red Rover, send . . . ummm, that girl . . . right over?”
His turning the game into a game of question always made me feel more confident in my ability to conquer his team. This was a nice change of pace, considering that Shawn Pagorto could bring me to tears by scrunching up his face, balling his fists, and yelling, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Kaylie Finn right over!”
Poor girl. Shawn had a crush on her. And to make matters worse, Kaylie was shy. Instead of running full speed ahead in attempt to break the line of hand-holders across the room, she walked slowly, with her arms crossed. When she got close to the opposing team, she would clumsily step forward and then break into a quick jog.
Kaylie was one of my best friends, along with Laura, who ignored my name changes and refused to call me anything other than “Hummy Gummy.” Laura was the only friend who managed to give me some sort of go-to name, and while I loved her for that, I still felt compelled to keep renaming myself on a daily basis.
While my aunt and uncle had every intention to name me and frame my birth certificate following the adoption, I became stubborn and uncooperative. I had lived without three names for half a decade, so why would I need them now?
“What would you like your name to be, darling?” my aunt asked as she poured a glass of Lucky Charms into my cereal bowl one morning.
I was only in first grade, and my answer reflected that.
“Mother Goose,” I said, gathering all the marshmallows onto my spoon and clumsily shoving them into my mouth.
“How about Daughter Duck?” my uncle joked.
I chuckled. My uncle always made me laugh. He called me his favorite daughter and I called him dipshit.
My aunt had the radio tuned to the oldies station, and Little Richard’s “Good Golly Miss Molly” was introduced by the DJ. His voice crackled over the loudspeakers as I watched my aunt finish packing my lunchbox.
I finished my cereal, watched my aunt stuff my lunchbox into my bookbag, and then asked for her help to toss my Little Mermaid bookbag over my back. I couldn’t wait to jump on my school bus, open up my lunchbox, and eat the cupcake that my aunt had packed for me. There was no waiting for lunchtime when it came to cupcakes.
That day, I named myself Good Golly Miss Molly. (And good golly, was that cupcake delicious!)
The only thing that wasn’t delicious, however, was the way I always thought of my parents when I ate cupcakes. Cupcakes reminded me of my fourth birthday party; my parents invited a few of the children from my preschool over to my house and made us eat cupcakes rather than cake. They gathered around the table to sing “Happy Birthday” to me, but I didn’t even get to blow out any candles and make a wish.
“How come you don’t have a birthday cake like my mommy got for me?” Laura innocently asked me as she wiped icing from her upper lip using her tongue.
“We’re saving up money for her birthday party next year,” my mom answered Laura. “She’ll have a big cake then because it’ll be her going away party, too.”
If I had candles to blow out that day, I would’ve wished for my parents to love me.
I’m in sixth grade now, still sitting in a classroom full of students who do not know—and show no interest in learning—the parts of speech. Why I know them so well is because more often than not, the names I create for myself contain nouns, adjectives, and the like. Most of my names also rhyme or contain alliteration.
“The little girl in the yellow vest is intelligent,” my teacher writes on the board. I am wearing a yellow vest. I think she is referring to me, but possibly only to make up for forgetting my name earlier. “Can someone name one adjective from this sentence?”
Laura raises her hand.
“Terrific job, Laura!” the teacher announces before writing “adj” above her correct answer.
I put my hand in the air. The teacher seems reluctant to call on me, perhaps fearing that she’ll embarrass herself again by forgetting my name, which, in turn, serves as a reminder that time must be taking its toll on her memory.
My teacher smiles and writes “adj” above my correct answer. I turn to Laura and shrug my shoulders, well aware that my teacher is really struggling to remember my name. She is cleverly biding her time by keeping her back to the class and avoiding eye contact with
“I’m Dizzy Miss Lizzy today,” I say, slowly bringing my hand down to my lap.
My mouth is a house and you are my favorite guest. May I get you something to drink?
Take a seat on any of the white chairs that are my teeth or sit on the pink carpet that is my tongue. Make yourself comfortable. Tell me a story. Tell me about the first time you heard one of the songs in your record collection. Tell me about the second time you took a road trip to Ohio. Tell me about the last time you used the word “rubbish” in a sentence.
Remember the time you told me that clowns are the same people who start forest fires?
“They’ll paint a flame on your cheek, if you let them,” you said. But I tried to defend them. I tried to tell you that the animal balloons they create contain helium, one of the safest gases on our planet.
Remember the time you told me that it’s not always a good thing, to wake up thinking? Well, today I woke up thinking, and I was thinking about all of the musicians who have
changed their names. Bono was once Paul Hewson. Bob Dylan, Robert Allen Zimmerman. Elton John, Reginald Kenneth Dwight. And Anna Mae Bullock changed her name to Tina Turner. I’m not sure what I would change my name to, but I am hoping that someday I can change my last name and say that the change was inspired by you.
If you’d like a change of scenery, I suggest that we swing on the tireswing in the back of my throat. It is there in the backyard that we will find some fresh air that we can
“What do you say to the couple who shared their first kiss on April Fool’s Day?” I ask.
“Would you say that it’s possible to get the silent treatment from your dog?” you ask.
I laugh. Then I laugh at all the different ways we can describe how we laugh: giggle, cackle, snicker, chuckle. All the words that describe laughter are funny words.
Anyway, have you ever tried cutting your steak with a spoon? Have you ever tried pasting your heart into a Microsoft Word document? I’m sorry. I’m just trying to make conversation here.
We can climb atop the roof of my mouth now. Go ahead. Look down.
Fiction, poetry, and all that good stuff . . .