The man of the Highly Common Name is always and everywhere reminded of who he is.
Making a dinner reservation or a medical appointment, not to mention checking into a hotel room, he braces himself for the pause in conversation, the doubting looks, the tired jokes. He keeps in mind explanations and ripostes, as others do not. Plane travel means allowing extra time at the airport to prove he is not some other bearer of the Highly Common Name, one—presumably more than one—who stands out from the crowd of himself by way of crime. He avoids jobs in public relations and other types of sales.
By definition, the Man of the Highly Common Name is not alone in his dilemma. He has confirmed this by leafing through telephone directories in other cities. Conducting vanity searches with major and minor engines, he finds hundreds of thousands of pages that include his name, and who share it: a retired football player, a knife maker of a different race, a Sanskrit scholar, a physicist. None is, to the best of his knowledge, himself, though he often feels spread thin.
Yet not all of his namesakes are distant strangers. He is, in fact, Highly Common Name, Jr. Raised in a small town, his father remembers times before television, before irony and sandwiches made on an industrial scale, Highly Common Name, Sr. meant no harm by naming his son after himself.
Fond of his father, bereft of ideas, admittedly slothful in matters of paperwork, the Man of the Highly Common Name declines to change his name.
He explores other means of addressing his dilemma, such as sleeping as long as he can, as often as he can. He is good at this, and it is free. Yet he must go to work some time, and even to the deepest recesses of sleep come dreams that reenact his waking life.
The Man of the Highly Common Name attempts to drink until he can no longer remember that name but instead confirms his suspicions: he possesses an impeccable memory. He suffers numerous hangovers.
Other drugs lie out of reach. Making discreet inquiries among people who know people who could meet his needs, the Man of the Highly Common Name finds that he must prove his good faith. He shows his checkbook, credit cards, new and old utility bills, his driver’s license and passport. They provoke one response: “Nobody will believe that. They’ll think you’re a narc.”
Only then, too late to help him procure controlled substances, does the very sober Man of the Highly Common Name begin to acquire nicknames, street names, noms de plume, de guerre, de Web. Some are given by others. Most he gives himself, as others send themselves flowers at the office. No one has a bigger collection; no one needs them more. These sobriquets take on a thickness and weight, accreting like the tiles that made up suits of armor before the Iron Age. They still prove inadequate. If his given name affords no more than a baggy fit over the specifics of his being, those additions cover only a small portion of those contours, and there is daylight between them.
His troubles too great to bear alone, the Man with the Highly Common Name seeks company. He makes friend among those with rare names that are variously ethnic, foreign, hard to spell, as a giant may befriend a dwarf. Yet the grass is always greener . . . . Those friends’ problems are not his problems. Their names have been butchered by gym teachers, truncated on standardized forms, and made the raw material of taunts and puns. Those friends would prefer to be him, as he would prefer to be them.
Over time there becomes little to talk about besides who is the giant and who is the dwarf. Friends drift apart.
The Man with the Highly Common Name then decides to think bigger. He goes to distant lands to take a sabbatical from being known as everyone and no one, from seeing his name on advertisements for credit cards.
But advertising precedes him. Introducing himself in several destinations, he hears “So you are a typical person from your country.” Some have their photographs taken with him.
Home again, the Man with the Highly Common Name reads as he never has before. Book after book interrogates him with questions other than what people call him, and he comes to understand why pages have been called talking leaves. But he does not hear voices or hallucinate. He only reads.
Having read, the Man with the Highly Common Name takes long walks out of town. Depending on his mood, he speaks and sometimes sings to livestock and wild creatures. Depending on their mood, they answer in their own ways, or keep still, but offer no comments. They ask no questions.
Needing rest, the Man with the Highly Common Name learns to sit quietly in a room alone. Some have given labels to this practice and classified its varieties, but he has lost his appetite for designations. He lets the seconds wash over him, then the hours. The hull of addressing and being addressed softens and falls away. He unfurls, taking root and taking nourishment.
J.D. Smith has published two collections of poetry and one children’s book, and in 2007 was awarded a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His first essay collection, Dowsing and Science, will be published in March by Texas Review Press.
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