By Heidi Naylor
IN HIGH SCHOOL, I worked as a lottery ticket agent at a strip mall newsstand called Tri-State Book and Game. I was sixteen, seventeen, selling lottery tickets I was too young to buy or redeem, and I suppose such a situation is not so uncommon.
But it was a job that caused me some discomfort. Under the counter were the paper-wrapped Playboys, the Hustlers and Blackguard magazines. There were fragrant cigars in the boxes at my left hip. I didn’t sell liquor—even beer was tightly controlled in Pennsylvania, you could buy it only from a distributor—but I peddled gambling, pornography, and nicotine like they were pure pulled taffy.
Again, not unusual, perhaps, except to say I was a Mormon girl growing up in the steel towns south of gritty Pittsburgh. On Mormon Day at Three Rivers Stadium, my parents hobnobbed in the loge with Pittsburgh native and former Allegheny County prosecutor Orrin Hatch, recently elected Senator from Utah. Far below them, I sat steps away from the third-base line, a couple seats from Donny Osmond. I watched Hall of Famer Vernon Law throw the first pitch. My seminary teacher turned up and asked me, the stake president’s daughter, to get an autograph from Donny, so I reached over and tapped the arm of his chair. I did not dare touch his wrist.
“Brother Osmond?” I handed him a program and a pen.
He asked my name, and I swallowed, shook my head. “It’s not for me,” I said.
Immediately, I worried I’d insulted him. When the truth was only that I was too shy to ask for an autograph of my own.
He nodded and signed the page. His hands were small, I noticed, as I took the program from him. Handed it back to my teacher.
Being Mormon meant I drove people home from kegger parties. It meant that when I accepted Christ as my personal savior at a born-again rally, I and the Campus Life youth leaders had received a firm reprimand from my father, who ushered us into his office in our living room. He told them in no uncertain terms that his daughter was not saved on a particular day, but every day, by the grace of Jesus Christ, after all she could do.
It meant I kissed David Toklas in his car in my driveway, home after a date to a PG movie. E.T. if I remember correctly. Chaste, thin-lipped kissing. After an hour, David went home.
AT THE NEWSSTAND, a regular, a bit of a rough character—moody, and changeable, whom I had privately given the name Bruno—came in one day.
“Hello, doll,” he said. He slipped a Motor Trend magazine off the rack and flipped through it. He called me doll every day, and every day took his time browsing before he played his numbers. Bruno made me uncomfortable: whenever he arrived, the air got charged up with something new and electric. But it wasn’t just that. It was also his quick way of turning, with a grin or scowl, I never knew which. Always sudden, a sort of shout.
A moment later, another man entered the store. A large man, dressed in black leather and denim, his skin like a polished buckeye. I became aware of the imbalance in the room, like when you’re on a bus and you realize you’re the only white person, or the one no longer young. It ticks up your antenna a notch or two, though on that afternoon mine didn’t extend to noticing this stranger as the only black man in the shop. It did extend to the obvious things—being small beside these two men, and timid in a way I tried to conceal by standing very straight, making my eyes bright (fooling nobody). Certainly to being just a girl, and then I noticed his name. Stitched across the chest of his jacket in gold letters. Valentine.
Valentine’s presence in the shop seemed to kick things into gear. Bruno put down his magazine and snapped his fingers at me to get a number. Many of my customers got their picks from me, three digits for the Pennsylvania Daily Number. I knew they expected me to give them the first numbers that came into my mind. Thinking about the numbers—my birthday 5/23, my street address 149, the price of a Hustler $2.87—thinking the numbers made them contrived and freighted with use. I knew this somehow. My customers thought I was lucky, and though they weren’t supposed to tip me when their numbers hit, they usually did. If any of them suspected I was messing with numbers in my head, even to give them a single thought, they would stop right there. They wouldn’t buy from me, maybe not ever again. I’d be cold, beleaguered, no more white-tiger rare and lucky; they’d go down the street to Benny’s.
But at the moment Bruno tried to extract my number, I looked away. Valentine’s fingers rested on the edge of the glass countertop, and I noticed he was wearing a Super Bowl ring. I’d never seen one before, but I knew what it was. This was 1980, the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the closing year of the decade they won four of their six world championships. It would be decades before they’d win again. And I had one of the players, some kind of a blocker, I guessed from his size, or a linebacker; my brother would know who he was. I had Valentine, in the shop. A beat of time. Then I said the number from the ring: Fourteen, I said. Fourteen, and I threw in the number of the victory Super Bowls. Fourteen-four. One-four-four. Then I looked up.
Bruno paused a long moment. He cocked his head.
“Dolly, baby, you wouldn’t mess with me now, hey? Just give me the number, straight out your head, doll, straight out your mouth here, see?”
I could feel a flush coming over my neck and shoulders. Being Mormon meant another thing: easily rattled. Wound a bit tight. One too many jokes about polygamy, or my mother’s battered station wagon. Even now I can sometimes be made to feel I have wandered into a game of Shock the Mormon. Back then I was often embarrassed in my own skin, made vulnerable at the sound of my own name. Lisbeth Thrush. Spoken in anger by my mother, in blessing by my father. To be spoken, Lisbeth, in whispers by a sweetheart, on phone lines to receive news or congratulations. To be written on résumés and letters, contracts, in my checkbook. To think the sound of my name, to say it out loud could make me feel as fragile as a first-time lover. Lisbeth. My name.
Which Bruno pressed forward, across the countertop, to remind or avail himself of. He leaned his head in toward me, my young-lady chest, bra size 32A—hoping for C, I would settle for B—where I wore a plastic tag: Lisbeth in blue letters, a blocky footed script. I could see flakes of dandruff clinging to the roots of Bruno’s hair. I could smell the product he put on it to keep it stiff and in place. I was frozen.
“Lis Beth,” he said, very quietly, separating the syllables. There was a juiciness about the s. A puff of air after th, and I cringed with a shame I did not understand.
“What are we going to do with you?”
Valentine folded his newspaper.
I couldn’t swallow. My throat was stuck. As if to acknowledge that, Bruno brought his hand up and pushed his finger on my mouth. His finger burned, it smelled like sausage. I dared not move, except to cut my eyes over at Valentine. Now there’s a name. He stood formidable, hulking, not reading the sports page, his back turned to us. Could he be so tough with a name like Valentine? Or, I was hoping, how could he help but be.
He turned toward me then. Valentine. His deep voice rumbled out like an old hollow ache that’s found its ease. He said, “I wonder you don’t axe me fo’ my auto-graph”––have I conjured this accent? but I don’t think so, for it struck me as something to notice and remember.
I knew he’d watched me watching his ring. His eyes held me and I fumbled on the countertop for the stub of an old ticket—just a white slip of paper, the tickets were printed on a noisy machine; they had tractor-feed holes on the sides—and I slid it to him across the scratchy glass. He signed his name with a black marker, then pushed the paper back to me and asked for a ticket with the number I’d chosen: 144. I printed the ticket and handed it to him and put his dollar in my cash drawer. Put his autograph in the back pocket of my jeans, and then it occurred to me that might have been construed as a suggestive thing to do. Another helpless blush began to rise.
All of it felt like a lot of commotion, and somewhere in the midst of things Bruno had released me. Backed away from the countertop and resumed lurking near the magazines.
Valentine stayed a while longer, browsing. Finally Bruno went out the door and then Valentine did, and my knees managed to stop their clatter. The newsstand closed as the sun went down, and I locked the door with my silver key, my fingers still trembling, my mouth still bearing the singe of Bruno’s finger.
THERE WAS A girl at school named Candy Cotton. And a beautiful, self-assured girl by the name of Jason. A cheerleader, Wendy Peppersack. A boy everyone tormented: Donald Waczewski.
My interest in names could be traced to an older girl in our neighborhood, long since moved away. But not before I’d noticed her silver-blonde hair, her long, racehorse legs. And her name: Tonnie, short for Antoinette or Antonya, or so I thought, until I saw a newspaper article about her prowess in a local track event. It wasn’t Antonya, not at all. Her name was spelled T-a-w-n-y. As in the color of our refrigerator. Or the suntan brushed in the cleavage of ladies in jacketed magazines at the newsstand. When I read Tawny’s name, all the magic drained away. What power was this—what was it about names?
The Bible was full of people whose names the Lord changed. Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. Sarai—Sarah. Saul, Paul.
There was a lady in our congregation—in our ward—who lived in Squirrel Hill. She had converted from Judaism, she married a Mormon Elder. They were expecting twins—hoping for boys—and her mother asked her what she would name them.
“We’re thinking Peter and Paul,” she said, “or maybe David and Daniel.”
“Oh please,” said her mother, “go with Peter and Paul. David and Daniel are much too Biblical!”
In my own house, no day felt complete until my mother heralded its close, with: “Shadrach, Meshach, and To Bed We Go.”
The angel told Mary her child would be Jesus.
And there was my favorite. Behold, said the Lord, in the Book of Mormon verse I loved. Behold, thou art Nephi, and I am God.
Shawn Weatherly had lately become Miss America. Slim Pickens, Tiny Tim. Christmas Snow, Wilson Pickett, Molly Hatchet. Rosanna Rosannadanna, Mr. Bill, Jack Ham, Lily Rose, Linda Lovelace. L.C. Greenwood, whom I always imagined as Elsie Greenwood. Holly Thornsberry, the name of a teacher I’d had in grade school, the most beautiful name I’d ever heard. Names spoken in whispers, with a caress; and again by the same people in a sneer, with rancor and judgment. Bruno spoke my name. And owned a piece of me he hadn’t owned before.
OUTSIDE THE NEWSSTAND, I clutched the key in my fist, the sharp end lodged between my fingers. Protruding. This with the idea I could take a swipe at some attacker, at Bruno if need be. I made a show of walking briskly. I often wore a pair of heels with my jeans and I was beginning to feel the day’s end, the tightness at my instep. Also a foolishness I could not quite put my finger on.
I focused instead on being quick, no-nonsense, and on the hard taps of my shoes on the asphalt, the slight echoing scritch of damp gravel beneath them. Rain had begun to fall. Lis-beth, my feet tapped. Right, left. Right, left.
The dusk deepened as I approached my car, a VW Bug I shared with my brother. A forlorn, hunched-over island on the glittering parking lot, one wheel straddling a painted line. The Bug had a two-toned paint job. One childish, rounded fender was forest green, while the rest of the car was tan and, I noticed in the streetlight, rusty. Lis beth. I kept hearing him. Lisbeth’s car. It felt as though this was the only car in the lot, though that can’t have been true. Other stores in the shopping center were open, and some had just emptied for the night like the newsstand.
I checked the far side of the car, peered in at the back seat, and all was clear. In a single motion, I twisted the key and opened the door. Got in and punched the lock down. The odor of cold vinyl and glass mixed with the oddly comforting smell of my brother’s gym bag on the passenger seat. The windows began to fog.
This told me I was breathing, but my lungs felt heavy and flat. A terrible ache clenched at my shoulders, as though I’d been waked from a strenuous dream. But I knew I was physically safe, behind the locked doors of the car. I pushed my key into the ignition slot, and the certainty of the motion calmed me. I believed and was sure that I was fortunate enough, blessed, and lucky enough that he could not have lingered there.
Not his real name, which of course I never knew.
Still. Why not hurry and turn the key? Why not get the devil out of there and go home? Rain began to spatter harder, in fat drops on the windshield. Insistent and, as I sat, worsening.
In a moment I stopped thinking about Bruno. The weather had a heavy, calming effect, and soon I was not worried about him at all. I began thinking instead about my mother’s name, and how my father would sometimes tease my mother, with the verses in the Bible written just for her.
“Shirley,” he’d say, “the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” Words so familiar they made a rhythmic harmony with the rain.
I smiled at the thought, so random and yet customary; I’d heard it at home twenty times. A small pleasure, to picture them and be relieved for a moment of the self-consciousness I could so rarely escape.
“Shirley. He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”
Again, more than familiar, but somehow, after my close call, newly tender and funny and lovely all at once. A private family joke, with a sure foundation. Repeating the verse, I saw that with Valentine’s help, I’d just negotiated a way through, or past, a potential sorrow. Surely.
At least part of the joke’s effect had to do with what had been taught clearly in my home: that my father would one day call my mother’s name in a way only she could recognize, through the sealing power. It would take place in another world, one far better than this. The idea had always unlocked a tender bloom inside me, just beneath my throat. And it did now, in the car while rain dropped in pellets on the roof.
But then another thought. Heavier, trickier. I swallowed carefully, as though within the sweetness of that bloom there was a scratchy splinter to be got past. The rain became a thick, wide wash over the windshield.
It had to do with getting through the business with Bruno. There’d been rescue. Even a bit of preserved dignity. Here I was, safe in the car, protected—the same girl who’d left the car in the lot a few hours earlier. He had wanted something from me, perhaps, more than my name, and had not been allowed to take it.
But also he had done something to me. Or opened the knowledge of something having to do with me. I’d been slow to see it, but now I could not ignore it. Bruno, knowing my name. Using it to effect.
Me, not knowing his.
Back at the newsstand, those juicy magazines were never in view; still I sold a lot of them. Stacked upright under the counter, each of them was covered, cased in brown paper or with a kind of shellacked white cellophane. Their value diminished when the wrapper was slipped off by some anonymous man, the woman uncovered. And in some interior article or blurb, little as there was in the way of text, the woman named. To this day I’ll notice a particular kind of woman, I’ll see her on a bus, or while shopping: a slender, pretty woman walking into an office building, a loud, brassy woman herding children in a supermarket. I see them and I’m taken back—I’m young again—in my VW with the rain drumming all around.
But young as I am, I cannot discount the knowledge Bruno has awakened. I watch this woman as though I’m the girl in the car; and she is not to dwell or brood—she must not call attention to this smallish feminine suffering, its rules ridiculous and absolute. For a quick moment I have to resist asking her, so, when was it for you? At what point did you become aware? Behold, I imagine. Audacious, insisting. I take my woman’s name—or hers, or any woman’s name—place it in that Book of Mormon passage I loved so much, as though it could actually fit. Behold, thou art Lisbeth . . .
Finally I did drive out of there. The rain let up a bit, the way it does, and what could I do but keep my back straight, my knees pressed together. Click the ignition forward and make myself steer smoothly, carefully across the shimmering lanes. I turned up the heat, entered the flow of traffic. Focused on the pull, the creamy, responsive thrum in the small engine when I shifted gears. I may have gotten lost awhile, taken some back roads. The sturdy Bug would have hugged the curves, its tinny purr working to cut the cool, wet fall of evening in a way that spoke to my agitation. Called up my resistance. At some point I would need to find a familiar highway home.
And in the solitary light of our foyer, I’d pause to slide the ticket stub out of my pocket. Valentine’s autograph. Limp, and blurry from dampness. Then, walk into the glow of our family room, where everyone would be waiting for me. Drop it onto my brother’s lap. As though he’d been the one with the right to it all along.