The Name Game

By Whitney Fox

At age thirty-five, Judith wonders at the possibility of love. For her, life is looking into the face of everyone she walks by, considering if they could be her friend. The absence of love in her life has been replaced by an activity that is surrogate for all passions and motherly tendencies. She has a talent for naming things. She enters drawings across the county for naming civic centers, desserts, and inventions. All her inventor friends find this quality particularly charming and useful. She won a toaster in Kansas City, MO, for naming a kitchen utensil, a type of spoon that scrapes as it stirs. She named it “The Spooner,” because the tool reminded her of the time she was caught “spooning” with Fred Schwartz in the basement of her house in high school.

In Grapevine, TX, she won two pairs of tickers to see Donovan in concert, and she remodeled her bathroom when she picked the winning name for the arena where the Super Sonics play. She has spent her life traveling, naming, and remodeling. All this has not earned her many friends, or respect from people in high places. The few friends she has consider “naming” her sole talent, a sort of gift from God or someone, as a compensation for her pointed nose and bruised-apple-shaped head. She spends much of her time reading—underlining catchy phrases in Reader’s Digest, Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Mechanics. She subscribes to and reads all the slicks: Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time. She thinks about being a writer, that if she could name several things in a paragraph, she’d be on her way with the luck that has protected her since birth. With luck, any magazine would publish her work. They would recognize how tightly her sentences were linked together, how each word, each letter, had been picked as if selecting tomatoes at a roadside stand. She knows she’s not brilliant as far as plots go, but if she could just select one word at a time, let the sentences spring out of each other, the stories would write themselves. Diction has been her means of survival for her entire life. Surely no glossy could pass up such treasured prose.

I wish I could tell you her first story was accepted with a handwritten note from the editor of Time. I wish I could tell you she sold her conglomerate house and moved to New York so she could be closer to her editor, that he suggested the transition so they wouldn’t waste so much money on postage. I wish this story followed: she not only wrote prose, but she flew to Siberia and wrote articles on location, articles about ping-pong and the mustards of Germany. Not only lauded for her descriptive prowess, Judith won medals for her writing’s justice among indigenous people of the world, children of the ghettos, and all the Girl Scouts who, before Judith’s sensational coverage, had been applauded only for reaching their quota of cookie sales.

What might have happened is this:

Judith gets a job writing fortunes for the Ving Chee Fortune Cookie Company based in San Francisco. Rather than moving to California, Judith commutes from a Nevada border town for the traffic/desert experience. She wants to see if California is what she imagined: one big city with various “Welcome to . . .” signs along the spiderweb of highway linking it with the rest of the world. She makes friends with astrologers who teach her the cosmic secrets of fortune-telling. She begins dyeing jewel-toned streaks in her hair and signing all personal correspondence “Shalom.” The world of fantasy and fortune cookies begins to take over her life, and she sleeps with ropes of garlic under her pillow; she doesn’t do laundry until Capricorn is in the moon of Cancer. She falls in love with and marries a Tarot card reader, Charlie, who moonlights as a Red Cross volunteer and fierce Canasta player.

Or it could’ve happened like this:

Judith gets a job writing fortunes for the Wing Chee Fortune Cookie Company in San Francisco. On her first weekend in the city, she finds herself among the stacks at the City Lights Bookshop where the Beat generation grew up. In the nineteenth-century literature section, holding a volume of Emily Dickinson’s complete works, she begins talking to Simon Lovitz, a Brigham Young University English professor, who relates to her his experience of one year previous in the same bookstore.

“I was standing right here,” Simon points with a curled hand to the bookshelf, “the day Allen Ginsberg died.” Judith gasps. “I was the only person in the store and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was doing a reading right over there.” He points to an open door at the end of the bookstore. The door is framed by posters of poetry readings and book signings around San Francisco. Through the door, Judith can see beams of mellow ash wood and New-Age colored walls. “He was reading some of Ginsberg’s poems in a reverent tone. It was very contrary to the spirit in which they were conceived.” Judith is impressed by Simon’s controlled diction and the feminine crescendos and decrescendos of his sentences. “suddenly; two men from Channel Seven news were in my face, one holding a blinding light on a stick, the other balancing a camera on his shoulder, asking me questions. It was rather eerie, being asked questions by ” camera, not by ” person.” Simon gives Judith time to conjure this image. “Once they found out I was an English professor at a conservative school such as Brigham Young, they drilled me on the appropriateness of Ginsberg’s poetry, then what my personal opinion was of the man, and finally, how I taught some of the more difficult phrases like ‘harlequin speech of suicide’ and ‘pubic beards’ to my undergrads. It really was frightening.” Judith feels herself wanting to put a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “I don’t remember what I said; I was all nerves. Here I am, in San Francisco for the second time in my life, and all of a sudden I’m eulogizing Allen Ginsberg on behalf of America. How do I know what he meant as a symbol of post-modern thought? My interest is the Victorian era!” Judith drops the Dickinson and picks it up. Something about her face provokes Simon’s narration. “So I go back to my hotel, I’m only in town for a conference, and I sit down on the bed. There on the television I see this same balding head, these same glasses, glaring back at me from the screen. I’m eating an orange, watching myself on some foreign city’s news at eleven, thinking, ‘This is the strangest day of my life.’” Judith smiles at Simon, thanks him for the recollection, and hands him her business card from Wing Chee. “If you ever decide to write a book about this, let me know. I’m fascinated by your story.” She trades the Dickinson for some Hemingway, and walks out.

Judith spends the rest of her time in San Francisco adopting the “California lifestyle,” which includes lots of fresh vegetables and breezy clothing-if not for the sake of California’s reality, then for the image she wants to retain in her mind when she moves away.

What actually happens is this:

Judith remains in Indiana with her cat, Schwing, and types a story daily. From various entries and winnings she meets people from all over the country who inform her of naming competitions in their towns. She continues the process of inspiration with each entry: sitting in her living room, now a shade of burnished taupe, scribbling all possible connections with the object being named on a sheet of butcher paper taped to the coffee table. With a red marker, she crosses out the obvious losers. Words that produce a feeling of suspicion get cut. She meditates for a minute on whatever is left and writes the remainders on a three by five-card. She then sets the three by five card on her bathroom mirror, wedged between the aluminum rim and glass and considers what will be the final name each time she brushes her hair or teeth or uses the bathroom. When she feels good about it, when she knows she can’t go wrong with her submission, she sends the words away on the entry form. Then she proceeds to the next competition due, or whichever looks the most interesting. For instance, she’d choose “Name This Fruit Drink’ with an enclosed packet of pink powder, to which she adds sugar and water, before she’d work on “Name This Piece of Military Artillery.” Her favorite contests are always “Name This Baby’ with an enclosed photograph and bubbly exclamations of size and weight from the recent mother and father written on the back. She has less time to figure out those entries, so she faxes her answers from the local copy shop, hoping that she’ll receive a confirmation fax from the over-joyed parent who just found the name for their darling in her letter.