May 19, 2019

“The Mystery of Names,” A Short Story by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

“The Mystery of Names,” A Short Story by Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri

My sister’s name was Nancy Drew. I was Nick. No joke. And in 1955, everyone gave her grief over it, my nerdy, tender sister who always wore lavender and sported large cat-eye glasses, who smelled like perfume and soap, the sweetest of scents. Motherly scents even, scents that were rare in our little home.

“Solve the mystery of my bad grades,” some student said.

“What about my parents?” another student said. “Why are they so uptight? You’re the detective, Nancy Drew.”

“Solve the mystery of your unpopularity,” another, crueler asshole growled.

“And the mystery of those glasses,” someone else said.

They showed up with flashlights and magnifying glasses like the actual Nancy carried. They all teased her, in the halls, in her classrooms. There were the brunettes with their pageboys, the tall basketball players with their buzzcuts, the cheerleaders. They waved the flashlights at her, laughing like hyenas. They made jokes about her glasses, called her the “nerdy detective,” too.

 The whole time, I wished she’d fight back, lunge at the world that was taunting her. I’d fought assholes who teased me about Nancy or our family many times before, with only the slightest provocation. She moved through the halls of our high school with a kind of grace and elevation the actual Nancy Drew probably lacked. She had a kind of patience, a kind of acceptance I lacked completely, even in dealing with me. She never yelled at me when I fought, although I detected a kind of sadness, a weariness, and I felt an innate love for my sister, and a need to tell her I needed to fight. Even if it was over a name. Especially with our parents all but gone, our father having run off with an Episcopal priest’s daughter and Mother always in Europe, writing what she called “nihilistic liturgies,” exposing the idiocy of people’s lives.

 A jock, Bubba Dupree, even turned the whole Nancy Drew thing into a matter of sex, since he had a crush on her for years. Nancy, of course, found Bubba repugnant, loud, and someone who thought little of the future.

“Tell your sister to find secret of the old cock,” he said to me, laughing and pointing to his pants.

“I’ll find the secret of my foot in your ass,” I’d growled, trying to sound like someone else, like Brando, like James Dean, like any number of the actors who leered at me from posters in the lobby of the movie theater.

I’d tried to beat him up, flailed, my lanky arms lunging into the air, but I’d ended up being pummeled. I’d taken each punch, embraced the pain, imagining my sister, trying to comport herself with dignity, a quiet, young woman. I imagined so much, as Bubba’s fist kept flying.

I kept imagining Nancy in her classes, walking down the hall, keeping so much to herself, imagined the things she must be thinking about her classmates. I imagined the weight of her name, a name that she despised.

I imagined how she must have despised the way the other students owned the school, comported themselves without care or compassion. All over a name. She must have thought there was little chance of personal friendship, of a personal and loving communion and she must have been weeping inside, her heart being torn apart, crushed, like some item one leaves on the train tracks. I imagined the ease with which Bubba slandered her, the crudeness of it all rushing from his beefy body. I imagined how he was incapable of kindness, decency.

Yet, she kept comporting herself. Except where her name was concerned, something we talked about often. And she always hated her name. Fact was she hated that name with an intensity that frightened me. She’d mention it in the most casual conversations. She and I’d go for drives, people-watching downtown, through the tonier neighborhoods (imagining ourselves in those Colonials and Tudors), and she’d tell me how she despised it, the cheerful quality of the name, the pretentiousness of it, even. Nancy Drew. She preferred some different name, something foreign.

“It’s not the jokes so much,” she said on one such drive, “and don’t get me wrong, I hate them. And I hate the name. But it’s more than that. It’s that I can’t live up to the fucking name.”

“What do you mean?”

 “Nancy Drew could own the world if she wanted,” my sister said. “I have to work my rear off just to meet the smallest goals. God knows how we’re going to survive, Nick. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I graduate, what I’ll do. And I know it’s funny, talking about a detective novel, but I’m envious, in a way. Envious of the actual Nancy Drew, because she has so much. And I feel like a fraud with that name.”

“You’re more accomplished than the bozos at school,” I said. “Or Nancy Drew herself.”

“I wouldn’t mind solving a mystery like that,” she said. “Not just for the fame. But because I’d be doing something useful, you know? Helping people who are hurt, torn apart by the fucking world.

“You know,” she added. “I wonder how much different it would be to have a whole different name.”

“That could be interesting,” I said, imagining the possibilities.

“I should,” Nancy said. “Just up and change it. Would anyone care if we did it? Who’s going to even say anything? I’ll bet Dad changes his name. Wherever he is. So he doesn’t have to see us.”

Nancy never solved mysteries or exposed swarthy criminals, but she could tell a dirty joke when she wanted to. She was a scholarly sort, who could talk about the world’s problems, about the need for civil rights, without sounding pompous. She was a wonderful singer, whose throaty renditions of Cole Porter could make you feel like the world was still funny and delightful and mysterious. She made sure I got to school and always had what she called “fireside chats” with me before bed, where we talked about our problems, comparing their magnitude. We’d huddle together in my room, as if conspiring, letting the secrets spill forth: Rowdy seniors laughed at her and made jokes about her, about her glasses, suggesting remarks about her physicality.

I hated my freshman history teacher, Mr. Ludendorff, who claimed I’d never make it in the world, because I couldn’t seem to articulate big ideas and concepts about dead, irrelevant personages. My English teacher, Mr. Greenlee said I couldn’t find a metaphor with two hands and a dictionary.

I’d wanted to tell her so much. Tell her that names didn’t matter, that our father didn’t matter, that she’d given me so much, that she shouldn’t worry about the world’s demands. The way they saw us, saw Nancy, saw our family. I thought she gave more than I could expect, love, patience. She gave so much when she was on the precipice of things too.

I wanted to tell her the world would give her justice in due time. But I knew that was bullshit even at my age, when everyone seemed to be leaving us in the lurch.

The truth of our lives: It was the name that attracted attention, but it was also more than that. It was what our surname, Drew, connoted beyond images of detectives fighting off swarthy men. Nancy once told me the name conveyed a sort of history. Even if it weren’t a detective novel, she said, it would be bad enough.

“What do you mean?”

 “Well,” she’d said. “We have to answer for the things our parents do, whether we like them or not. Because of the name. It’s like being a kid and you make a mess, right? And your mother has to clean that up, whether she likes it or not. Difference is we’re like the mother and we gotta stick around to clean up the crap.”

“I guess I understand that,” I’d said. “Not much fun though, having to clean up for selfish people.”

“No, honey, it isn’t.”

There was much we had to clean up, but couldn’t, a history of runaway parents, of constantly losing things and never receiving things in return. We weren’t the kind of family that people were accustomed to. The family who kept their laundry neatly hidden in the shadows, and wore starched smiles. The man in the grey flannel suit for a father.

People saw my sister as a source of amusement, a social pariah, a fallen woman. They saw me as an insignificant entity. It seemed to me that people measured Nancy by her unusual name, coming from storied families themselves. These were people who held onto their two-parent families and country-club creeds, their holy and apostolic assholery. They refused to share them with us, even the smallest fortunes of their lives, taking us into their grand homes, offering some semblance of comfort, however empty. Some even joked that we’d have good fortune because of her august name.

If that was the case, fate was hiding its treasure from us. Nancy Drew and the Mystery of The Fucked Up World.

I started to think of my own name and its meaning. Nicholas, which meant victory, started to seem fake, and I felt as if I were in this together with my sister. In school, I noticed it more, this emphasis on names and identities, even more than before. People carried their surnames and they labeled each other for better or worse, on the basis of physicality or behaviors or what-have-you. Names illuminated our own misfortunes in a way and slapped us with truths. There were no victories or detectives, only Nancy Drew jokes, bills piling up, a father out in the world living selfishly, and a high school for me that was predicated on hierarchies and names. I felt the intensity of my sister’s self-hatred, a young woman cursed with a name she hadn’t chosen.

Some nights, she’d steal into my room late at night, and cry when she didn’t think I was noticing. She’d also utter her name aloud multiple times, saying it over and over. Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew. Sometimes, she even said it with a foreign accent, as if that would mitigate the weight of the name, its history for us, its literary connotations. But after a while, she’d just shake her head and leave, or stare out the window, as if the moon, the stars, held answers to this situation.

A year later, she changed her last name to Botkin and I did too. We’d learned that Mother was staying on in Europe longer, her letter filled with cold platitudes about “space” and the “nothingness” of home life. Nancy said she had read about a court doctor in Russia who had that name. He’d been shot with the tsar and the royal family, but she admired his patience and dignity, she said. He didn’t need to be the center of attention, of history, of any of that. He just dedicated himself to his tsar and his family, and Nancy admired that kind of dedication, that withdrawal into love and commitment.

“If we have to have a name,” she said. “Let it be Botkin. People will still have their fun. At least, we’re worthy of being Botkins.”

I tried on the name. Botkin to me held a kind of mystery, the promise of something new. And it held a kind of hope, a hope for a future, where we could somehow recreate our own stories, make things up, if whatever else. We could imagine ourselves coming from kinder, gentler families, having a father who wasn’t a lecherous sort, a mother who stuck around and overwhelmed us with love. We could be noble, we could be people of class. Of course, it was all an illusion, but for a moment, it seemed so perfect to me. And to my sister too.

The day we changed our names, we stormed out of the courthouse, heads held high, walking with a kind of defiant poise. Dignity. Walking with my sister, we fought expectations and jokes, we wore our new names, we illuminated our new selves, knowing that we would fight on, in a world that embraced cruelty and possessed no shortage of names for it.

***

Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University’s MFA program in fiction. He is the recipient of two Honorable Mentions from Glimmer Train and has had work nominated for The Best Small Fictions. His work is forthcoming or has appeared in journals such as Train Lit Mag, Bended Genres Journal, Sinkhole Mag, and Gravel Magazine. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Image Credit: From the first Nancy Drew novel, The Secret in the, Old Attic, written by Carolyn Keene and published in 1930.



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