My Name was Supposed to be Elizabeth Ann

— Stories from the Roads (Not) Taken

To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being.

— Iff to Haroun in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories

This is the story my mother told me:

A few weeks before their due dates, my twenty-three-year-old (almost) mother chatted long-distance with her friend, Dorothy, whom she met at Fort Bragg. After Uncle Sam drafted their baby-faced husbands and shipped them off to Vietnam, Dorothy returned to Ohio and my mother to Philadelphia, where she lived with my father’s family while awaiting my birth. My mother tells me the friendship was a source of comfort despite their geographic distance. Though both women were surrounded by family, each felt an isolation that only the other could understand. Which partly explains why my mother never told Dorothy how angry and hurt she was by what happened next. Dorothy, who hadn’t decided on baby names as of that conversation, delivered her daughter first and named her Elizabeth Ann–the name my mother had reluctantly revealed she had always intended for her own child.  

So I became Michele Elizabeth. Michele with one L. Remember that. It’s important.

*****

In Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories–a wonderful book, by the way. You should read it–Haroun’s father Rashid, a professional storyteller, “[runs] out of stories to tell” after his wife runs off with the neighbor. Iff the Water Genie reluctantly agrees to help  Haroun reconnect Rashid’s access to Story Water, the magical source of Rashid’s extraordinary gift, and tells him to select their means of transport. “Pick a bird…any bird,” Iff insists, which makes no sense to Haroun. They’ve met accidentally in a houseboat bathroom, and the only bird Haroun sees is a wooden peacock bed, incapable of flight.

“Iff [gives] a snort of disgust. ‘A person may choose what he cannot see,’ he [says], as if explaining something very obvious to a very foolish individual. ‘A person may mention a bird’s name even if the creature is not present and correct: crow, quail, hummingbird, bulbul, mynah, parrot, kite. A person may even select a flying creature of his own invention, for example winged horse, flying turtle, airborne whale, space serpent, aeromouse. To give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it—well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being. Or, in this case, the said bird or Imaginary Flying Organism.’”

The Genie opens his fist, and Haroun’s “eyes almost [fall] out of his head.” Creatures smaller than fingernails cavort on Iff’s palm.

Names, you see, are magic.

*****

Here is another story:

When I was four and my brother was three, my mother told us we would be getting a new big brother and sister. The details arise in my memory like photographs looping through a slideshow. Me seated at my play table behind the front door, Barbie on my lap. Philip sprawled on the floor pushing a truck. My mother, hair headbanded and looking equal parts flustered and severe. My father is absent, though he could not have been. The doorbell rings. The dogs scamper and bark. A matronly social worker enters with two children. Share, Mom had told me and Philip. And be nice. So I ask my new big sister if she wants to play Barbies.

Her name is Michelle, with two Ls.

*****

Big Michelle sticks.

Little Michele does not.

I become Michele Elizabeth, all one word. Micheluhlizabeth. Then Elizabeth, but only within the family. Not in school, not among my friends, never at work. I meet my husband and tell him, I’m Michele. People who know these stories ask, Why didn’t you change your name? Surely it was confusing, a sister with the same name? How on earth did you manage?

By a P2C2E. A Process Too Complicated to Explain. This is Iff’s answer to all of Haroun’s impossible questions, and it is partly the answer to my own. Truthfully, part of me did not acknowledge the chaos.

Most of me delighted in it.

*****

The summer I meet my new big sister, the six of us, our two dogs and a turtle travel to Ohio, where I meet Elizabeth Ann. A year or two later, her family travels to Philadelphia. Eventually, our families lose touch. Why, my mother does not recall. Nor do I recall much about the girl. She was nice enough and had brownish hair. 

Now, I wonder whether she knows the story of her name. Whether her mother knows that in stealing from my mother, she magicked a unique landscape for my childhood.

*****

My name was supposed to be Elizabeth Ann.

I’m glad it’s not.

Somehow, I acquired a dead man’s interrupted life. 

His grey stone cottage, mid-forest. Books, a barn, blank stationery veined with mold. Curled edge photographs stacked like kindling in a dusty hope chest. They claim me.

A rusted horseshoe slumbered in the cook stove. I burnish it with wire, secure its resurrected luck with a trinity of nails above the threshold. His ashes, scattered within the orchard, coalesce.  Wonder.

The locals say he lived sad and died fierce.

Me, too. 

I lower onto our front porch stoop and caress its sun-warmed face. Yes love, I say, as he approaches.

Welcome home.

*****

(“Come Live With Me and Be My Love” was originally published in Sunspot Literary Journal.)

In eighth grade, Leann’s California brother blank-check, birthday-gifted her a whole new wardrobe, accessories included.

I tried not to hate her. Tried not to worry whether anyone saw my Thursday jeans were Allthedays’, my sweater winnowed from Glad bag cast-offs, my wrists braceleted with scabs.

They healed up mostly clear, except just there. See? One pinkish edge curls like a tongue.

*****

… strolling hunched and sandalled along the highway berm. His right hand clutched a blanket ‘round his shoulders. His left, a cigarette whose smoke wafted through my car’s open window. I cat-sneezed, but he kept on walking. Didn’t say god bless. Just shrank inside my mirrors as  I slowed and braked for red.

Tuesday, I’d seen him at the lifer rally, red-faced and preaching hellfire as news cameras panned the crowd. Monday, preaching carry rights and anti-facts. One nation about him, not US, while disciples swallowed Kool-aid lies and propagated death. Never saw him while at homes or shelters, neverminding schoolyards where our babies, overfed with suffering and hate, dry-heaved hope like bitter pills.

Wednesday, I told the Universe I feel like Atlas. World-crushed, soul-weary. Why even bother?

The light blinked green. Impatient drivers honked.

Because, the Universe answered.

I accelerated:

That Jesus ain’t my savior. 

I believe in LOVE.

*****

So in August, I finally made my new year’s writing resolution.

Not for the calendar year, dear reader. The academic year.

My resolution? To write and post an original microflash every Monday. 

Three reasons. 

First, I’m a very slooooow drafter and wanted to practice increasing my productivity.

Second, I knew time would shrink even further come September and another Covid school year that would include helping to  plan my daughter’s wedding. I wanted a manageable, measurable goal so as to avoid burying my writing life within all those competing demands.

Then I got overconfident and announced my resolution to the world. 

That was either really smart or really stupid, I told my students the first week of classes. I’d made them write and post Goal Cards in the front of the room for everyone to see and figured it only fair if I shared my writing goals with them. 

Which is my third reason: Accountability. I hate letting people down. Myself included. For me, that sickish feeling of failure is a terrific motivator.

And I’m happy to report that my experiment was a success. 

I wrote and posted every Monday through mid-November, the week after my daughter’s wedding. (It  was BEAUTIFUL, by the way, and I have STORIES!!!) Along the way, I learned greater flexibility in my writing practice and how to do more with fewer writing minutes.  I grew more confident with the shortest of story forms and learned I enjoy the challenge of crafting within their restrictions.

I also confirmed my earlier suspicion that, while reading microflash requires little time, crafting good microflash requires way more. That’s why Monday Micro is now Monthly. The first Monday of each month, beginning December 6, I will continue to post an original microflash of 150 words or fewer. I’m striving to make it a good story. One you’re glad to have read. One that sticks with you far longer than the minute or so it takes you to read.

Please let me know what you think.

Until then, I have a story to write.

*****

(Want a tiny story to tide you over until then? Click FICTION, above, for previous posts.)

*****

The day after, Birdie bins and washes, shelves detritus of a home upended. Dust clogs her nose. Tickles her eyes. She sneezes. Blinks. Sneezes yet again.

Birdie knows dust is partly skin, that skin sloughs and regenerates each moon cycle while her bones and heart require ten years of cycles to renew. By which math, she has been reborn five times at least since birth. (Hers and hers, depending.)

But some math Birdie cannot figure:

Volume accumulated by empty rooms. The ratio of bitter to sweet. 

Wonders–

When a child is grown and flown,  is a mother still a mom?

*****

Outside, monsters roam.

They won’t hurt you, bud. 

Behind his mask, curiosity battles fear. How come?

Magic, she says, sidekick to his cartoon hero. Kneeling, she steps his feet into leggings, arranges a cape about his shoulders and goblets on a table. Their cream faces blush dull orange as she pours. 

How’d you– 

Witches’ secret. Drink up. 

He slurps like a cat.  

Slowly, bud.  Trick-or-treat’s just started. The spell needs time to work.

Two weeks, Doc said three weeks ago.

*****

Before Everyone discovered Someone’s bones, 

Someone stored their faces in a box in a drawer in the middle of their dresser and,  mornings when they awoke, tried on each in turn, discarding each facsimile as smallish or loose or lacking in some necessary, elusive detail  heard about but never seen (like unicorns or potted gold), until— desperate and late— they chose at random and hurried unsettled into an indifferent world.

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