I’m excited and proud to announce that the spring 2011 issue of Amoskeag, Southern New Hampshire University’s venerable little journal, will feature my short story “[sic],” which has been looking for a home for nigh on five years. Of course, three of those years, I was too miserable to submit anywhere, but the story sounds more romantic if I elide that nugatory detail.
All non-artist folks always ask writers, musicians, and visual artists the same question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” Chuck Palahniuk, increasingly less entertaining one-trick pony, wrote a whole allegorical (admitted) Ira Levin-ripoff of a novel, Diary, as a sort of absurdist answer to the question. And it’s not exactly that it’s a stupid question, it’s just a damned frustrating one because, generally speaking, we have no fucking idea. Or rather, sometimes we do, but it’s an insanely complex, Rube Goldbergian machine of a story that, if its specs were unfurled, would prove to be less than interesting. Half of the time, the answer would sound very much like your answer, were someone to ask you: “Where do you get your dreams from?” But in the case of “[sic],” I have an answer. I can bullet-point the story. It’s up to you to decide whether or not your find it interesting.
“[sic]” is blurbed on the back cover of Happiness is a as a story about “[a] caregiver [who] discovers a typographical error on his birth certificate” and this “allows him to develop a second self, capable of many things which he is not.” That’s the least misleading concision I’ve ever written. Drafted way back in 2005, I’d been reading a lot of Italo Calvino that autumn, and I was in great existential torment about how much cleverer than I the man was. Thus I’d gotten really into punning and wordplay. The story features a lot of that sort of thing and, I’d like to think, works better with second and third readings. It’s also one of several not-so-subtle commentaries on the American healthcare system I’ve written under the guise of fiction. And its actual genesis, I remember, was a sequence of moments under the awning outside of a coffee shop (I know: could it be any more clichéd?). Friends of mine had been dating their way through the baristas; I just wanted one, and I was still pining over her months after it was clear that it was never going to come together. But hell, she looked good even emptying the ashtrays. I’d been watching her and not listening to my friends, until one of them mentioned that his stepfather’s legal name was “Baby Boy Hamm.”
“Baby Boy Hamm?” I said. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Why doesn’t he get it changed?”
The stepson flicked his ash in my general direction and chortled. “Whoa, dude. The only place he’s ‘Baby Boy’ is on his birth certificate. Everywhere else, it’s Bob. It’s not like it’s a big deal. Calmare, calmare.” I asked him then if he wouldn’t be pissed if his birth certificate said something other than his name, and he replied, “No way. Actually, I don’t even know what it says.” This is because, he revealed, he’d never seen it. Never even looked for it. This astonished me. I spent a chunk of a childhood summer trying to get into a locked metal box beneath my mother’s bed just to find my birth certificate, my social security card. I don’t know what I thought either would tell me. Maybe that my absentee father wasn’t my real father. Or that I’d been a virgin birth. I wanted to find it, I think, mainly to prove that I existed in the world. My name had always been a bane: no one used my first name, my middle name was plain and only uttered when I’d done something grievously wrong, and my last name—the name everyone called me—was my absentee father’s. Names meant something, I told him. I asked, “Wouldn’t you be peeved at least a little if you found out that letters had been transposed and your name wasn’t really ‘David,’ but something idiotic like, I don’t know, ‘Dvaid’?” He shrugged the question off. And so did I, more or less, when that girl I loved came by to dump our ashtray.
A few months later, that friend had become a roommate, and he came home one night with an astonishing discovery. “So, that conversation we had that time got me thinking.” I had no idea what he was referring to. “I did some sleuthing and found this.” He presented me with his birth certificate. The pieces came together.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, at least you’re not ‘Dvaid.’”
“Nope,” he smiled. “But check it out,” (he produced for me his license), “I have been spelling my middle name wrong for twenty-seven years. So has my mother.”
“Huh,” I offered. “So what does this mean?”
“Not a damned thing, really. But with the different spelling, I’ll feel all shiny and new for a while, every time I apply for a credit card, or fill out any other form with those little boxes. Like a beautiful autumn bride,” he chuckled, and mock-pranced out of the room.
“But names mean something,” I thought. “If I found out my first name was something different, well, then anything would be possible.” The thought was definitely an overstatement, but the sentiment behind it was sincere. There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo rides in a limousine on his way to see the Oracle. He sees buildings in which he’s eaten, alleys he’s traipsed down. Then he realizes that “Thomas Anderson” isn’t even his real name. “What does it mean?” he asks. And his nubile latex-clad consort says, “That the Matrix cannot tell you who you are.” The dialogue flitted quickly through my mind. I wasn’t sure which side I came down on: if I found out my birth certificate said something that wasn’t the name I’d grown accustomed to, would it be the world redefining who I was, or, if I changed, would it be an act of free will?
I wrote “[sic]” to figure it out. And a few years later, I dropped my father’s name.