A Boy Named Sue

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The first task God gave Adam was to be the Poet Laureate of Paradise. He was to name the animals of Eden. Adam did a passable job: aardvark and wildebeest, oryx and eland.

It was only after Adam proved himself unworthy of God’s trust that he had to find new employment “by the sweat of his brow.”

We have different names for different times of our life and the different roles we play. Unlike a product brand, a name doesn’t necessarily define or describe its holder. Johnny Cash’s greatest hit is an example: “A Boy Named Sue.” He first sang it at San Quentin prison.

I have transitioned from my boyhood name of Billy to my first New York Daily News byline of Pete to my IBM moniker of Peter. Concurrently, I’ve been known as Daddy by my daughters and Gigi by my grandsons. A few young people I don’t see often enough refer to me as Uncle Peter.

The monumental blessing I enjoy is that I can immortalize people who have touched me by assigning their names to characters in my fiction books. I bring some of them to life in my new novella, Billy of the Tulips, which is under contract to be published by TouchPoint Press (soon, I hope).

Bobby Ferguson, for example, was a neighbor boy when I was growing up in Perth Amboy, NJ. He’s been dead close to seventy years:

I used to play with him when I was a kid—brown hair, kind of chubby? We nailed a bushel basket with no bottom onto a telephone pole at the end of Pulaski Street and we would shoot baskets. He was always getting sick and disappearing for a week or two at a time. One day, he went home and never came out to play again. I heard he had leukemia and died. He lived in a little house at the end of a dinky little street in grubby little Perth Amboy. What chance did he ever have? I didn’t know what leukemia was back then, and I didn’t know Bobby very well. He was just a kid on the next block who was as lousy at shooting baskets as I was.

Then there’s my father's sister, Katie, my long-deceased aunt:

She’s another one, Nick thought as Katie entered. Always siding with her mother. At least he’d had his way with her name—Katie, after his own sister. His daughter, tall and lithe, was nothing like his sister, who had lost her leg to diabetes and finally died of the disease. Lumpy, the kids called her, because she was fat. But Nick had loved her.

My first summer job, at fifteen, saw me as a young seminarian trying to fit into the coarse orbit of the Fireplace Diner in Woodbridge, NJ. I know those folks have long forgotten me, but they live in my memory and in my writing:

I work under the dishwasher, a Puerto Rican guy named Joe. He must have a huge family because he has a story every day about a sister or brother or “abuela,” as he calls his grandma. They all live together in one house and everybody has their own car so there are about six cars parked outside. They spend Saturday washing and waxing the cars, starting at ten o’clock in the morning, drinking beers and playing loud salsa music. Their neighbors hate them because of how noisy they are and call them parakeets because they talk so fast in Spanish. But Joe doesn’t care, because he and his family are Americans, too, and the neighbors can go fuck themselves. Joe uses that phrase a lot. All the people who work in the kitchen say that word. The waitresses, too.

My Vieques friends, Joe Maestro Williams and his partner, lend their names to the novella’s decadent rock ‘n’ roll millionaires, “Lazy Liz and The Maestro.” Professor James Shelley? He’s named after my Aunt Annie’s late husband. My college chum, Ziggy Bryda, appears as a gifted painter. The director of police of Woodbridge, the town I covered as a beat reporter, is resurrected as the muscular and mean Fusco. Oh, and Fusco is my mother-in-law’s maiden name.

My favorite T-shirt, a gift from my late wife, is silk-screened: Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.

Consider yourself warned.


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  • commented 2017-10-28 10:58:40 -0400
    A great way to memorialize people. Hey, what’s my character’s name?! 😉
  • followed this page 2017-10-28 10:54:32 -0400