My name is Stephen David Grover. Stephen is my father’s name. I don’t use it, and neither does he. I’ve made do with the other two he provided me—he doesn’t bother with any of the three his dad gave him. He goes by Sam, rather than Stephen or Harris, a completely arbitrary nickname begun by one of his brothers. He always signs his name “S. H. Grover” so that the bank won’t worry whether the check was made out to Sam or Stephen.
David is the name I grew up with. My dad’s two best friends when he was young were David Ericson and David Nickels, whom everyone called Pickles. Pickles Nickels. I was named for these two kids and for David, Israel’s most famous king.
Grover is an Old English name dating from way back; it refers to one who tends a grove or an orchard. It is my family name, but of course each generation you go back doubles the number of surnames compounded in that one.
I was never called anything short for David like Dave or Davy, but my grandmother called me “Davy Doodle Bug” when I was little. I liked to draw—still do—so I assumed she meant “doodle” in the artistic sense. I couldn’t see a connection between art and insects, doodle and bug, but I didn’t worry about it. It only occurred to me this year that she was calling me a doodle bug probably because I crawled and rolled around just like the pill bugs we played with as kids. I wonder now if she inadvertently influenced my artistic future by implanting in me the idea that I was a drawer. She also used to call me smart.
I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with being named for King David of biblical fame. I mean, this was the guy who was doing so well until he saw Bathsheba bathing from the rooftop. I’ve always felt a tinge of karma at the connection, like I need to watch myself, especially later on down the line.
My younger brother’s name is Jonathan, named for David’s best friend. While King Saul was chasing David around Canaan and trying to kill him, Jonathan, Saul’s own son and heir to the throne, was helping David escape only to become king later.
Jonathan and I have never been all that close. He has a very individual character that works better with books than with people. When we were very little I don’t remember being mean to him, but I do remember my mom telling me over and over not to hit him. She was always reminding me of why we were named what we were.
I learned not to hit him before I was old enough to do any damage, and it’s a good thing I did, because he went from being a skinny little kid to a giant of a young man—six foot four and thick. He never went out for sports, though, as he preferred his quiet room and his collected things—“trappings” is definitely the word for the stuff he kept in his room. On Sundays as kids, when we were only allowed to play one video game each, Jon would often give me his turn in the name of the greater cause of beating whatever game we were playing. He’d rather be a part of the big victory than play one round just for himself. To a kid that’s a big thing, a serious sacrifice. When I was playing a particularly hard part he would concentrate as hard as he could, “thinking positive,” so that I would be able to win. I wonder if Jon isn’t the king’s best friend after all.
When I hit high school I was changed forever. Not only did my voice get deeper and my body get hairier and the gangly redheaded girl in my English class suddenly get, well, interesting, but I got a new name as well. My older sister Jennifer had been pretty active in the school’s theatre club, graduating from the high school the same year I finished middle school. Although I loved drama, I was too shy that next year to just walk into the weekly meeting of a group of students calling themselves “thespians” and frivolously spelling troop as troupe. No sir, I wasn’t willing, but I discovered my hormones were. With the smell of roses clouding my brain, I followed that redhead right into their sibilant den and never even thought to look back. The leader of the “troupe,” a portly Jewish man with hair on his face but not on his head, seemed to be expecting me, for no sooner had he learned my name than he howled out a prolonged “Gro-o-o-o-o-o-o-ver!” like a dying mutt. Apparently, Jennifer had been known only by our last name while in high school. Mr. Baber, as the theatre teacher turned out to be called, was quite content starting with me right where he had finished with her.
That was the first big shift in my life, namely. Going by my last name plugged me into a legacy of sorts. I inherited the name and the fame of the sister who went before me, and I contributed to that legacy for the brothers who would come after. I had Mr. Baber’s trust from day one on account of Jennifer’s steadiness, and I like to think that trust continued.
The only person who ever called me Stephen on any sort of permanent basis was my tenth-grade gym coach. We were sitting on the court floor that first day of the year and he was doing the roll—such a wasted exercise in P.E. It didn’t seem to me to be worth saying, “Sorry sir, I go by David or Grover, not Stephen,” and I had already said it to every other teacher in the school that day. Coaches just call you “champ” and “hey you” anyway. But not this guy. He actually called me Steve every day of the year. I don’t even remember his name; he was just “coach.”
I can tell when I first met someone based on what they call me. Anyone I’ve known since before high school calls me David, and anyone after that calls me Grover. My high school friends were aware of my other name, though. If they called our house and asked for Grover, whoever answered would be quite puzzled; after all, anyone in the house could be Grover, and worse still, that’s the dog’s name.
My sisters had always begged for a dog, and when I was about ten our parents broke down and got one for Christmas, a little black mix between a Lhasa apso and a Yorkshire terrier who got only the bad genes of both. They needed a place to stash him until Christmas Eve so they took him to my dad’s boss’s house. His family wasn’t anxious to name our dog before we’d even seen it so they just called it Grover after us for the week he stayed at their house. Somehow the name stuck.
My best friend Will and I waited tables together at a steak house where my name tag said “Grover.” Every morning when I came in to flip the chairs over off the tables, our manager Jimi would put his arm on my shoulder and holler, “Red rover, red rover, let Grover come over!” Then in a hushed voice he would add, “Bet you’ve never heard that, have you?”
“No sir, I haven’t.”
Will, being in the older camp of David-callers, had to learn to call me Grover when speaking of me to other waiters, or he would be met with a look of confusion. “Take these salads to whose table? We don’t have a David here, do we?”
One day the difficulty of it got to him and he called me Grover to my face. I was struck by how strange it sounded. I told him he had to call me David, surprising myself at the unexpected force in my voice.
I endorse the backs of checks with “Stephen David Grover,” so that the bank won’t worry, no matter who wrote the check. I’ve been experimenting with S. D. Grover, but so far I don’t like it.
After high school I spent two years as a missionary in Korea where I was known as Elder Grover, after the custom of my religion. In Korean the k and g sounds are mostly interchangeable, v doesn’t exist and is usually relegated to a b, and r’s are unheard of. The result is a name of great ambiguity. Koreans, reading my name spelled in their alphabet and eager to impress me with their knowledge of English, would excitedly say, “Ahh, Mr. Glove!” or “Nice to meet you, Mr. Globe!” I was once identified with the Danny Glover of Hollywood fame, and once a kindly man bid me farewell with, “See you again, Mr. Global (as in Global Nuclear War, yes?).”
I often roomed with native Korean missionaries as I moved in and around Seoul. It was a tradition in our mission for the natives to give their American roommates Korean names, but I never could prevail on any of them to do me the honor. Near the end of my time there I decided I would just name myself, and after a little thought I settled on Go-Goo-Mah, the Korean word for sweet potato. My roommate Elder Han was incredulous. “That’s not even a name,” he said, “It’s a vegetable!” I figured that since he was fluent in Korean and had failed to help out, he had no say in what I called myself. Grover and Go-Goo-Mah sounded remotely similar in Korean, and no kid ever forgot my name once he heard it. “Elder Sweet Potato, Elder Sweet Potato! Why are you named that?”
“Because I’m so sweet.”
Four years of high school and two years in Asia pretty much cemented what I called myself. I went to college and it was only natural to continue the last name moniker; by this time even I had trouble when I called home. “Who is it?” came my mom’s slight Texas accent on the line.
“It’s Gro—I mean, David, your son.”
Whenever my mom called me and no one was home she got mad at the answering machine. “Hey, this apartment 82 with Ben, Joe, John, Erik, Clark, and Grover. Leave a message.”
“David, this is your mother. I don’t like that you call yourself Grover. Why don’t y’all change that answering machine to say David? It’s a nice name. Anyway, give me a call.”
A few months into college I started dating a girl who’d been my friend since I arrived. She had always called me Grover, like everyone else, and it seemed awkward to have her change now. I would imagine the conversation where I revealed the seriousness of the relationship by asking her to call me David. It would be like saying, “I’m afraid I might end up with you long term, so I think it would be a good idea if you started calling me David. We don’t want to end up Grover and Anna Grover, do we?” I just couldn’t say it. We broke up a month later.
Sometimes people discover that my name isn’t Grover and they get these offended looks like I have been lying to them about myself all this time. And maybe I am. Grover has become my public name, the handle for the masses. Let them use my durable, disposable surname; it’ll come clean in the wash. Let them feel like they know me, and someday I may make them privy to my other self, my private-name club for members only. I always tell myself that if I blow it with Grover, I can make a comeback as David; I consider it my backup name in case of emergencies. Often when people find I’m a David they ask delicately, “So what do you prefer to be called?”
“Grover is fine.”
I don’t want to give up my alter-ego just yet.
Sometimes girls find out about my private name and start using it. Elisa was one of these. She was a cute girl with blonde hair and a petite figure, but she had eyes like a wolf’s. She was a college freshman, a psychology major, and she had just graduated high school a year early. She knew where she was going. “Hey David,” she’d say with just a hint of a stress on my name, like she was in some inner circle no one else knew about. I didn’t know anything about it either, and I didn’t want to. It gave me the creeps.
The benefit of a name like Grover is that it’s so memorable. Among those of my generation it recalls images of that furry blue monster of Sesame Street fame. Few people forget my name once they’ve heard it, and this causes all sorts of problems. Walking around my college campus I hear hellos from people I can’t recall ever seeing before.
“Hey, Grover, how’re you doing?
“Good. Uh, do I know you?” I’ll say sheepishly.
“Ah man, we met last week at the Student Association meeting. I’m working with Max on that voting project, and he introduced us. You know Trent, right? And Tristan? They all know you.”
Recently I’ve started mixing up who I introduce myself as. Sometimes it’s Grover, sometimes David, sometimes David Grover. I don’t know why. Maybe my mom’s requests have caught up with me. I think it would be funny for two people I know to be having a conversation and one tells a story about something their friend David did. Then the other one one-ups the first with a crazier story about their friend Grover. It hasn’t happened yet, but then again, I doubt I’d hear about it if it did.
Deep down I miss being called David. Using Grover for so long has given it a special emphasis, an intimacy that I long for. But Grover has so much momentum. I mean, it started out with so much mass being a rare but memorable name, and I’ve only contributed to that with use. I’ve simultaneously accepted the definition by using it and added to that definition by living it; now the question is whether I can defy all that. It’s funny, but through all these years I’ve never stopped calling myself David in my mind. Even though others have maybe seen only the Grover side, I’ve always been aware of my other names. I’m always a little king of Israel and a little Pickles Nickles, a little Grover and even a little Stephen.