Swans Commentary » swans.com August 12, 2013  



Name Of The Father


by Peter Byrne


Short Story



(Swans - August 12, 2013)   Zarowitz, there was a name. Still, he would have preferred being back when he'd never heard it. Or better, back in the days before that, when he never had those dreams. They were about his father and surprising because the old man didn't enter much into his life. Could anyone named John Smith get much into anything anywhere? He'd heard Freud's story of fathers and sons. He liked stories. But the idea that he and his father were locked together in a melodrama made him laugh. He, the son, would have stepped out of any such scenario lickety-split and with pleasure. But nothing of kind occurred. Maybe some sons had that sort of double act thrust on them, and maybe not. It sounded to him like no more than a lurid story line.

There was another reason to laugh. A man content to be named John Smith couldn't have thrust anything on anybody. Someone whose only initiative in life had been to lumber his son with his name could hardly launch a sizzling drama. Even the tacking on of "Senior" had been the town clerk's idea.

So he was John Smith, Junior, by default. He recalled first hearing the name from his mother's lips. There they were all on their own, mother and son, he getting zipped up for his first day at school.

"Don't forget to tell them you're John Smith, Junior," she said.

Holding her hand on the walk to the school gate, he couldn't get over who he had just become. She saw he was upset and explained the Junior part to him. Finishing as she hurried him through the gate, she gave one of her quick brief smiles and said,

"For us at home of course you'll still always be just, Junior."

That's exactly what continued to upset him his first day at school and his last-forever for that matter. He was number two, and number one had no more substance than a John Doe. He, Junior now, didn't blame his mother. It wasn't her doing. She only picked up the pieces when something went smashing to the floor and his father did nothing.

At grade school, he got along. What kind of fun would it have been for bullies to torment a John Smith, Junior? There were no handles on him that they could pinch and twist. Reading the roll call teachers never waited for him to say, "Present." Where else would a John Smith be but there just like the seats and desks?

Little changed in high school, if not for the worse. Hormones and social life heating up, he did some mixing. But the sing-songy ring of John Smith, Junior, undermined his style. Long hair had come in and gone out before his mother stopped going with him to the barbershop. When grease-it-and-shape-it arrived, he tried his hand. No one was having that from John Smith, Junior. The worst kid in class paused in his life of crime long enough to look into Junior's eyes and shake his head no.

One apprentice trollop with her ass in the air looked away as if shocked. John Smith, Junior, had to keep to his profile, and it was so low he fell out of the picture.

Turning twenty, his frustration simmered over in a wild spell. He had a yen for art, and graffiti had come to town. He worked out a curlicue signature that made JSJ into a looping rattlesnake. There wasn't a wall in town he didn't tag. When cries of vandalism got too loud, town officials took action. They caught John Smith, Junior, spray can in hand. He wasn't unhappy to be found out and presented as brazen a face as any Junior could manage.

The men of law wanted to know what was behind the wavy JSJ. When he said -- what else could he say? -- John Smith, Junior, they smiled in relief. He got off with a scrub brush and a bucket of soapy water. They were sure his name would soon have him back on the no-problem path. And so it did. He'd waited too long to go rogue. The name that no one had trouble spelling pinned him down. Unable to sidestep the leper, John Smith, Junior, one sour Samaritan, embraced his name.

Jobs went along with the name. No sooner did employers spy it on an application form than they had a slot for him. They'd found the perfect ignorable small fry. He would never sink to the troublemaking bottom rank or put the knife in anyone above him. He would remain John Smith, Junior, steady, uncomplaining, on track.

Who could say no to a chat with Mr. No-Name the new salesman? No one, as it turned out. But once he'd put John Smith, Junior, on the table, its low energy content kicked in. He couldn't sell a thing. Then, as a telemarketer, they wrote his sales spiel for him. It began with a genial, "My name is John Smith, Junior." Householders found that too good to be true and hung up. One wiseacre said, "Call back when you start to shave."

He took refuge in a government job. It couldn't have better suited his name. His signature was in demand and endless initialing called for. Accepting defeat he surrendered to JSJ and let it settle him into decades of life as a public servant. This meant he sat in a succession of indistinguishable offices listening to the sterile whining of his colleagues. With the public, he had nothing to do. The servant served no one and spent his days making marks on a computer screen.

Promotions came at regular intervals. The name John Smith, Junior, always made the list down near the bottom. He would move upward, but infinitesimally. As in first grade, there was never a gold star after his name, only a gray checkmark for being unobtrusively present.

When Senior died, according to the eulogy full of years, Junior saw it differently. The empty bag of his father's life had simply been upended and nothing fell out. Reading the three-line obituary, he groaned to see that death left Senior still piggyback on Junior. Six feet under, the old man remained on top. Junior cursed himself for not producing a male heir on whom to unload his malediction.

It was then the dreams began. In life he had kept away from his father. Far from being actors in some two-handed drama, they lived in different novels. Junior had never taken a good look at John Smith, Senior. The dreams made up for that. The old man appeared before him like a face on Mount Rushmore. His father in life had labeled him Junior and went back into retirement. Dead he stood like a wall blocking the view.

Soon his mother fell sick. Her smiles, brief or otherwise, were no more. He held her hand like the first time she'd taken him to school that morning long ago. He felt her pulse sink. As he bent over her, she tugged him close. It was last-words time. She formed them with effort,

"Not John Smith, Senior," she said. "His name was Zarowitz Z..."

Junior gagged for a moment on the new reality. Then gulped it down and cried out,

"What was his first name? Tell me his first name for God's sake, Christian or otherwise!"

The revelation left him in greater shock than had his mother's death, which followed immediately, last words being last words.

Resentment stopped nibbling at him. He no longer smoldered at his ergonomic work station. He stopped looking at the screen in a trance and cracking his knuckles between jabs at the keyboard. He sat there now pitched forward, absorbed in the chase. He would track down Z. Zarowitz.

It wouldn't be easy. The town hall had recorded the registration of his birth. John Smith had endorsed it with his personality-challenged, flourish-free signature. Only the capital S of Smith, begun backward, gave pause. "Junior" had been added in the handwriting of the clerk on duty.

He thought that friends of his parents' younger days might know the truth about Zarowitz. But when he retraced his childhood it dawned on him that they were without friends. He couldn't recall them having any social life at all, then or afterwards. John Smith, Senior, had been friend proof. As for family, his mother had always bemoaned her destiny as an orphan, while Senior's blankness was preceded by a pair of blanks and they by another.

A computer had been the stultifying office tool that bedeviled Junior's workdays. Now it became his only hope of certainty. He searched till his eyes stung for Z. Zarowitz. Months passed. He discovered no one with that name that could be connected to his mother. One Zigamut Zarowitz did have a faint online presence in their part of the country near the date of John Smith, Junior's, birth. The phantom, however, then abruptly fled the screen. His name occurred in no local death notice of the time.

Junior managed finally to throw off dreaming about John Smith, Senior. It was a gradual process and there was a price. His obsession with Zarowitz now invaded his sleep. No longer did the empty face of John Smith, Senior, confront him in dreams. These filled now with a grimacing Zarowitz who began his nightly performance with a sardonic, "Zigamut's my name." He was rough and earthy, his grammar skewed, accent strong. Hair grew from his ears, but not on his head. He sweated a lot and would bend over apelike to pinch Junior's cheek.

In time John Smith, Junior's, troubled nights ran over into his days. Colleagues noted a change in his habits. He whined now just as impotently as they did. A strain of comic illiteracy ran through his rants. He would lash out with violence. A rictus distorted his face. He did not spare the powers that be. Word went around that he was hitting the bottle. He kept mum about his dreams but lived them out in daylight.

The idea possessed him that Zigamut Zarowitz was his real father. His mother had succumbed to the man's rugged charm. Could anyone blame her? If cypher Senior weighed upon Junior what could his mother have felt sharing intimacy with the cuckold? Junior sneered and demoted the imposture to stepfather. But, despite his visceral conviction about his origins, he had not found definite proof. It troubled him. He even had recourse to a detective agency to put his mind at rest. The move cost money and got him nowhere. However, something the agency's man suggested as he presented the final bill stuck in Junior's mind. He could resort to DNA analysis.

As sole heir there was no obstacle to verifying that he wasn't Senior's son by comparing their DNAs. That is, no obstacle but money. He decided to splurge with his savings. The laboratory and paperwork took months. He no longer joined in complaining with his office colleagues but began to shout them down. In an argument over a lunch break he slapped a kibitzer's face. Another told him to stop clowning with the funny accent that wasn't funny. Junior elbowed the man's laser mouse to the floor and crushed it with his heel.

News of Junior's falling short of his name reached the chief of section. That august figure decided against forcibly retiring his wayward employee. Trouble among underlings reflected badly on management. What's more the chief still felt the name John Smith, Junior, lent his department a matt finish of no-nonsense normalcy.

Junior's world quaked beneath his black oxfords when Deoxyribonucleic acid spoke its truth. John Smith, Senior, turned out to be Junior's progenitor down to the last chromosome. But the report included a sensation. Plain old Senior had kept a secret. His father, Junior's paternal grandfather, not only bore the name Zigamut Zanowitz, but had added Senior to it. John Smith, Senior, before a sneaky name change, had been Zigamut Zanowitz, Junior.

By his painstaking and expensive enquiries John Smith, Junior, had turned himself into a two-fold Junior Zigamut Zanowitz. His life of frustration finished in a new disappointment that was hardly relieved by his improvised stratagem of signing, Zigamut Zanowitz III. There was no way out. He'd trapped himself in the dead end of ghetto exoticism. Now queries about his origins never stopped coming, most of them couched in snide humor. He began to look back with longing to the uneventful days when he had been colorless John Smith, Junior, five anonymous syllables so transparent as to make requests for clarification redundant.

It took him a full year to regroup -- for what did this cluster of names amount to if not a group? He decided that he would from then on answer to Z. Zanowitz-Smith, Junior. When, always with a smothered grin, the inevitable questions came about this strange coupling, he would murmur with a blush, "Just call me Zigamut, Zigamut, Junior."


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art19/pbyrne214.html
Published August 12, 2013