The Naming Game
Tarl Roger Kudrick
His mother's name was Sherry.
His father's name was Nathaniel.
His best friend's name was Warren Denaublin. His worst enemy's name was Emily Pirthrull. Some of his classmates were Susan Fench, Gordon Quellan, and Irving P. Rinehauser the third.
His name was John Smith, and he was not happy.
He wouldn't have cared so much if his name was at least spelled differently. Jon Smyth, Jonn Smithe, or something like that. But it wasn't. It was J as in Joshua, O as in Orville, H as in Harvey, N as in Norman, S as in Samuelson, M as in Mitchell, I as in Idall, T as in Terniard, H as in Hutchington -- John Smith. His older sister (Josephine) had an English teacher (Mrs. Starnell) who talked about the Everyman. John thought that John Smith was the perfect name for an Everyman, but he was only eleven, so he couldn't even qualify for that.
There had to be at least a million John Smiths in the world. Didn't his parents realize that? What was wrong with them? What could they have been thinking when they'd named him?
His mother would have talked first. She always did. "Oh Nathaniel dear, look, it's our new baby. What'll we name him?"
"Oh Sherry darling, how about 'John Smith?' "
"Why 'John Smith?' "
"It's the most boring name I can think of."
That just about summed it up, John figured. Then his dad would've gone on about something else, probably football. John hated football. All the players had their names proudly displayed across their backs, so everyone could see how great they were. Once, he had seen a player with the last name Smith, and felt some hope. Then it turned out the man's first name was Ebineezer and John lost all faith in the world.
If only there was a famous president, or rock star, or something named John Smith. Or a movie star. Anything. Of course, those people would never call themselves John Smith, even if that was their real name. Those people never used their real names. They made something up. And that's what gave him the idea:
He would get his name changed. Officially. Right now, right on this bright Sunday morning, before he even got dressed. Why put it off? He felt better already.
The hard part, of course, would be convincing his parents.
Nathaniel Smith was sitting in his armchair in the living room, reading the newspaper, completely ignorant of the storm of self- confidence and assurance that was about to come flying out of its room, demanding to have its name changed. Thus, he regarded the request with considerable surprise.
"You want to what?"
"Dad," John repeated, "I want to change my name." It had far less effect than he'd hoped for, especially the second time.
"You want," John's already washed, shaved, combed, groomed, and perfectly dressed father slowly said while staring blankly over the rims of his shiny glasses, "to change your name."
John, unwashed, uncombed, and still in his pajamas, said "Um... yeah."
John felt the moment slipping away from him.
Seeing no real response from his father, he used what he'd been saving as a last resort.
"Movie stars do it!"
"You aren't a movie star."
Leave it to parents to be logical when their only son in going through the ultimate crisis of his life, John thought. "You don't understand. I have to."
"Why? Are you hiding from the police?"
"No!" Why did parents have to say stupid things like that? "I just have to, that's all."
"Oh," said his father, turning and looking at the wall. John looked there too, but didn't see anything. And apparently, neither did his father. After a couple moments he turned back to John and asked "Why?"
"It's boring," he answered. He spread his arms out in a gesture of emphasis that was completely lost on his father. "There are millions of people called John Smith."
John stopped for a minute, thought, then realized he'd been tricked. "Daaad! You aren't taking me seriously!"
His father chuckled. "Okay. Look, have you talked to your mom about this?"
John reluctantly admitted that he hadn't. But, he added, she was next.
"Well, why don't you see what she thinks, and then talk to me."
"But she's at church! She won't be home for a long time!"
"She's always back by lunch time. You can make it that long." He ruffled John's hair. John slumped his shoulders and went back to his room.
"And stand up straight," his father called after him.
John got caught up in other things and forgot about the whole problem until after dinner. Then, his mother was shopping. She always shopped after dinner. It never made sense to John, but then, nothing his parents did made sense. He had to talk to her as soon as she got back! School started tomorrow, and there was no way he was going to start fifth grade as John Smith.
When he heard the sound of his mother's car coming into the driveway, he ran out of his room to let her into the house. He threw open the door just as his mother was about to unlock it.
"Hi Mom!" he shouted, scaring the unprepared Sherry Smith almost to the point of dropping her groceries.
"Hi John! Hey, you scared me there." She wondered why he was opening the door for her. She figured he wanted something, and tested this by asking him to bring in the rest of the groceries.
"Sure, Mom!" He ran out and made four trips from the house to the car and back without a complaint.
Even when that was finished, though, John still hadn't asked for anything, and Sherry began wondering instead what John had done.
Finally, she came out and asked him if he wanted anything.
John beamed, then became ultra-serious. "I'd like to change my name," he said.
Inwardly, Sherry Smith groaned. Josephine had gone through several different stages of "but Mom, I just have to (fill in the blank)," and was working on another one. She'd hoped John wouldn't fall prey to it too. But, the best way to handle these fads, she'd long ago decided, was to just play along.
So she asked him what he wanted to be called.
John opened his mouth, then closed it again. He had no idea what he wanted to be called.
"Larry," he finally said, proudly.
"Larry," she repeated, as if trying on a new hat. "Sounds like my name! Why Larry?"
John didn't know, so he said, "It sounds good."
"Larry," she mused. "Larry Smith."
John almost had a heart attack. "No! Not Larry Smith! Larry... Quartz! Larry Quartz."
His mother looked dubious, but John loved it. "Yeah. Larry Quartz. It's great. It's exactly right." Seeing no complaint from his mother, he went back to his room, smiling. He could hardly wait until tomorrow.
The next morning, after washing and dressing, John came out to eat breakfast. His mother was making pancakes. No one else was in the room yet.
His mother greeted him with a smile. "Good morning, John."
He almost responded, but then remembered and said "Who?"
His mother sighed. "Right. Who are you again?"
"Larry," he said slowly. "Larry Quartz." He sat down at the table.
His father came in from the living room. "Hi John." Both wife and son quickly corrected him. He looked at them, confused, but then just shrugged.
His older sister was next. She bounded into the room, her silky and wet black hair flopping behind her like a confused flag. She sat down at the table and, much to John's dismay, ignored him completely. He wanted to get her to call him John too.
So, he started humming quietly underneath his breath, and playing with his fork, hoping Josephine would tell him to stop. She did give him an odd look, and he paused and returned a false smile, but nothing else happened. He went back to his humming.
Pouring some pancake batter into a pan, John's mother said "Jo, we have a new member of the family this morning."
John stopped humming. What was she doing?
Josephine studied her mother. She looked around the table. "I don't get it," she said finally.
Sherry put the batter down and waved an arm at John. "Meet Larry Quartz."
Josephine stared at John, who paled slightly. "Whaaattt?" Her voice rose in disbelief.
John sat still, wondering how to turn this to his advantage.
"He changed his name?" Josephine drawled. Then she started laughing. "He changed his name?"
She turned to John. "What's wrong with the name they gave you?"
"Now Josephine," John's father began.
"It's Jo, Dad, not Josephine," she reminded him.
"What's wrong with the name they gave you?" John mimicked.
She glared at him. "John!"
"All right!" John's mother announced. "The first pancake is ready."
"Well, why don't we let John have it?" suggested Josephine sweetly.
"Who?" John replied innocently.
"Well, if he's not around, I guess I'd better have it!" She took the pancake.
Not taking any chances, John quickly added that he wanted the next one.
All in all, breakfast turned out pretty good for John. His mother called him John once, his father accidentally called him Harry, and his sister, for sake of argument, called him John every time. It was great. He just knew that he was going to have a wonderful day.
He didn't, of course, know about the new girl in his class.
Her name, and the month she was born in, was June. She had the nicest hair and the sweetest smile, and she had just the right mixture of shyness and audacity to get anything she wanted from anyone. She was a knockout, or as much of a knockout as a fifth- grader could be, and this was certainly the impression held by the male population of the class.
In fact, no one dared sit near her. The boys didn't, because they didn't want to do something stupid. And the other girls didn't quite trust her. June, and the seat next to her, were left alone.
So when John walked in, just barely before the bell as always, the only available seat was the one next to her, and all eyes were on him as he sat in it.
With no formal training at all, John performed a perfect double- take, and the result was a spontaneous burst of giggles as John found himself trying not to stare at June as rudely as he was.
Then the bell rang and the teacher walked in, and everyone turned to the blackboard.
The teacher was new. He walked in front of his desk and said "Hello, class!" His voice was deep and clear. "As you may have noticed, I'm new here. But I've taught fifth grade before, so I'm very good at it. I hope that you will all think the same after you get to know me. But first," he said, placing a pile of notebooks he'd been carrying onto his desk, "I would like to get to know you. My name is Mr. Carniss." He wrote it on the chalkboard with precise handwriting and opened up one of his notebooks. "Now I have here a list of names, but I don't know whom each one belongs to. So I'm just going to read off each name and if that's you, just raise your hand. How does that sound?"
Sounds terrible, thought John. This name-changing business was going to be harder than he'd figured.
What were his friends going to say? He glanced around. Sure enough, they were all there. About two-thirds of the room knew him, or at least his name. He vaguely remembered being laughed at only a couple of minutes ago and he didn't want to go through that again.
Then he thought of June. He didn't know her name was June, of course, but whoever she was, she didn't look like she'd think much of a John Smith. He found himself staring at her again, and looked away. Why did he even care what some dumb girl thought, anyway? He wasn't sure, but he did.
Mr. Carniss began.
A girl in the last row raised her hand as if it were going to explode if moved too quickly. Mr. Carniss looked up, smiled a smile that melted Sue-Ann, and made a mark in his book.
And so it went. Name after name was called. Denaublin, Ewing, Garth...
June raised her hand as far as it would go. John felt sick. June Golden, he marvelled. What a name. She'd never have to change it. If I had a name like that, thought John, I wouldn't change it for a million dollars. Not for ten million. I wouldn't even change it if my parents threatened to kill me. I wouldn't...
John stopped thinking and sank into his chair. He felt like he'd just been hit with a sledgehammer. That was it. The answer. That was how he could get away with this and not be the laughingstock of the fifth grade.
Excited, he smiled, and could barely restrain himself until, eleven names later, Mr. Carniss said
John raised his hand, slowly, faking uncertainty. He hoped he looked like he wasn't sure he was doing the right thing.
Mr. Carniss looked up at John and made a mark in his notebook. Then he looked back at John. "Is something wrong, John?" he asked.
John couldn't tell if it was real concern, or just the usual kind teachers had for their kids. "Um...yeah," he said finally. "Kind of. That's...that's not my name anymore."
Mr. Carniss looked surprised. So did the other kids. John kept a perfectly straight face, but mentally crossed his fingers as he said, "My parents changed it."
Next to him, June Golden's eyes went wide with pity. On the other side of him, his best friend Warren almost fell off his chair.
Mr. Carniss was disoriented. For the first time, he seemed unprepared. But he quickly regained his composure and said, "I see. And what is your name now?"
Here we go, John thought.
Warren gave him a look which translated as "You've got to be kidding." Some of the other students were looking at each other in awkward disbelief. June seemed slightly bothered at the idea, and turned away from John just as he looked over to see her reaction. But none of this fazed Mr. Carniss, who had once again taken control.
"Well," he replied cheerfully, "what would you like me to call you? John or Larry?"
John looked at him, sinking. Why did he have to be so nice? But it was too late to back out now.
"I guess you'd better call me Larry, Mr. Carniss. I should get used to it."
"You should get new parents," whispered Warren, but Mr. Carniss simply nodded and made some more marks in his book. He finished off his list of names and then class started.
The day went badly for John. Things hadn't gone at all like he'd hoped. When he thought about it, he wasn't even sure what kind of reaction he'd been looking for, but he did know he hadn't gotten it.
As it turned out, Mr. Carniss was only his homeroom teacher. That meant he had to repeat his story and his act for five more teachers throughout the day. By the afternoon he no longer wanted to, but he kept having people he knew in some of his classes, and the story had spread through the entire fifth grade by lunch hour. John heard people talking about him from time to time, but he could never quite hear what they were saying.
By the end of the day, the misery he'd feigned for his first class was real. No one wanted to talk to him. No one knew what to say. A brand new student would have been treated better. John had forgotten how many friends he'd really had, until none of them seemed comfortable around him anymore. It was like he'd died and some new kid had come along, trying to take his place. It isn't fair, John wanted to shout. I'm still the same person! I'm just called something different!
After his last class, he collected his books and went to the bike rack where he traditionally waited for Warren. He unhitched his bike and, after a couple minutes, Warren arrived.
Warren smiled, started to say "Hi John," and then remembered and mumbled "oh yeah."
"It isn't that bad, is it?" John asked.
Warren stared at him. "You mean you like it?"
Warren started to say something, but stopped. "It's okay," he said. "But I like John better."
John looked at his bicycle. "Maybe I can get them to change it back, or something," he said. He didn't like the idea.
Warren did. His spirits lifted immediately. "You think you could?"
John was slightly taken back at the force of Warren's question. "Well, I don't know. They haven't actually made the change yet, but they said..."
"Well don't let them!" Warren shouted. "Shit! Tell them not to! I'll help! Want me to come over? I'll stand up for you!"
"No! No--that's okay." John wanted to change the subject. "I'll tell them. I won't let them. I...I like being John Smith." But he wondered who he was trying to convince, Warren or himself.
He rode Warren home, and then went on to his house, deep in thought. He still thought John Smith was a boring name, but nobody seemed to mind. Maybe the name actually helped somehow. "John Smith? Yeah, his name's boring, but he's cool..."
He got back home and put his bike away. When he walked inside, his mother smiled at him. "Hi Larry! How'd school go?"
"Who?" John asked.
Tarl Roger Kudrick (email@example.com) has been making up stories since he could talk and writing them since he was twelve. He's written numerous short stories and first drafts of two novels, one of which is on-line at Oberlin College. His major goal in life is to earn a Ph.D. in psychology. He stays sane through both being weird and running AD&D sessions. (Bio last updated in 1992.)
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 2, Number 2 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1992 Tarl Roger Kudrick.