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Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Truth or Something Like It

by Tommy Vollman

          I met Joe Nuxhall a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday. His hands were gnarled, and he spoke as though his mouth was half full of marbles, but he was sharp and funny as hell. I was only a few months younger than he was when he made his Major League debut.
          At just fifteen, Joe Nuxhall climbed on the hill at Crosley Field in the top of the ninth against the would-be World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. Manager Bill McKechnie called on Nuxhall with his Cincinnati Reds on the short end of a 13-0 deficit. Nuxhalls debut was essentially mop-up duty at Niagara Falls.
          Still, the OlLefthander managed to retire two of the first three batters he faced before all hell broke loose. Nuxhall never finished that half-inning; he never found a third out. In fact following his debut, it would take him eight years to get back to the Major Leagues.
          When I met Nuxhall, he was half of the radio broadcast team for the Cincinnati Reds. I shook his hand and asked him to sign a baseball card my uncle gave me years before. The card was a 1963 Topps. On the front, Nuxhall was framed in mid wind-up, his arms stretched high over his head, his throwing hand hidden inside a chocolate-brown mitt. The back of the card was jammed with stats. When I first received the card, I wondered if the 67.50 ERA listed for 1944 —his rookie campaign—was a misprint.
          I was enamored with that statistic. The pitchers I knew of in the bigs had ERAs in the 3s; the really good ones were in the 2s or below. For a long time, I was sure my Nuxhall card was a simply a misprint. No pitcher, anywhere, at any time could possibly, I thought, have had a 67.50 earned run average.
          But Joe Nuxhall did.
          67.50 was no misprint.
          Nuxhall was a legend. He was a good pitcher—great, even—a Cincinnati Reds Hall-of-Famer who won 135 games in his sixteen-season Big League career. His lifetime ERA—3.90—was a far cry from the ultra-inflated number of 1944.
          While he was signing my card, I asked him what it was like to face the St. Louis Cardinals at fifteen.
          He stopped his Sharpie mid-signature and stared at me. The room we were in—a large, partitioned conference room at the downtown Westin on Fountain Square—seemed to go silent. A wide smile cracked across his face, and all the air came back into the room. He adjusted the thick, wire-framed, aviator-style glasses that perched on the bridge of his nose and leaned back in his chair.
          You know,” he said, “I was so goddamned nervous when I got the call, I tripped and fell on the way out of the dugout.”
          He leaned forward, his elbows on the white, cotton tablecloth. His eyes grew clearer, even more focused. He seemed to stare not at me but through me.
          I was used to throwing to good hitters, even some really good ones,” he added. “But,” he continued, “theres a difference between a good hitter and a Major League hitter. I got two of three, then gave up a walk.”
          He shook his head and smiled.
          I was there, up on the hill, and I look over and see Stan Musial in the on-deck circle. Next thing I know, hes up at the plate.”
          He leaned back again in his chair and stretched his hands over his head in nearly the same way he had in the photo on my baseball card.
          Then,” he chuckled, “they scored some runs. Lotsa runs.”
          His smile was so real, so sincere, Id have believed anything and everything he said.
          It wasnt that bad,” I replied. “Only five.”
          Even to this day, Im not sure why I said what I did. Im not sure what I was thinking. At the time, when I heard those words tumble out of my mouth, I could hardly believe Id said them. I thought Joe Nuxhall might punch me in the face.
          But he didnt.
          Joe Nuxhall was too much of a class act for that sort of thing. In fact, what he did left me as awestruck as anything has since that time.
          Joe Nuxhall leaned toward me, his hands flat, fingers spread, and said, “Son, they couldve scored as many runs on me that day as they wanted.”
          He handed my card back to me, his signature split in two segments, and nodded to the person behind me.
          As I stepped away, Nuxhall spoke again.
          Hey kid,” he said. “Thanks for that.”
          I smiled and nodded, puzzled as to why in the world Joe Nuxhall would thank me for reminding him of his horrendous Major League debut.
          As I got older, I think I grew to understand why Joe Nuxhall might have thanked me. Now, Im almost sure of it. He thanked me because I gave him a chance to be honest when it would have been so easy to be dishonest.
          I wouldnt have been honest as Nuxhall.
          I couldnt have been; I care too much about what other people think of me. More accurately, I care far too much about what I think other people think of me.
          Which often puts me in quite a bind relative to the truth.
          It shouldnt, but it does.
          Now that I have kids, Im more conscious (or at least I try to be) of my issues with truth. But old habits die hard, and its still far too easy for a lie to slide off my tongue.
          Joe Nuxhall didn’t give up a homer that day; his earned runs came solely from walks and base hits. My lies aren’t mammoth—they’re not home runs. I tell myself they’re tiny—base hits or walks—irrelevant, seemingly. They’re lies to cover up forgotten phone calls, neglected garbage carts, and overdue library books. They’re lies about missed emails, late arrivals, and vitamins. But they all hide (or attempt to hide) the same thing: a sense of not quite being good enough, of not measuring up, as if telling the truth could expose a version of me that no one could possibly love or respect. I’m not perfect, and I can’t ever expect to be, but I’m scared to death of being seen for what I am: someone who forgets, who loses track, who sometimes can’t keep up or just doesn’t want to. I’m terrified that my shortcomings might be exploited or worse, define me. I’m desperate to try to maintain something fundamentally unsustainable. I’m desperate to stay in control, to not be seen as less-than, as a fraud. I understand, of course, the awful irony. I lie to others to maintain the perpetual lie I tell myself.
          The truth, of course, is that none of my lies are harmless; all of them are aimed at deception. All of them evoke pain and erode trust. All of them—every single one of them—are destructive, cancerous, corrosive.
          Which is exactly the opposite of what I tell myself.
          I wonder what Joe Nuxhall told himself. I wonder how it could have been so different from what I tell myself. I wonder if Joe Nuxhall ever considered anything but that truthful, face-up story about his Big League debut. I wonder if Joe Nuxhall ever offered any excuses, ever messed around with the size or shape or structure of things.
          Im sure he did.
          Or at least Im sure that he considered it.
          But I think he figured everyone knew the truth already. And even if they didnt, he did, so what difference did it really make? What happened, happened, and Nuxhalls honesty may just have freed some space for other things, things not destructive, corrosive, and cancerous. Nuxhalls honesty helped him get back to even. And eventually, he got ahead.
          I want to free some space. I want to get back to even. I dream about getting ahead.
          Lies are heavy, clumsy, and awkward. Lies are unruly; theyre contradictions. Lies are a misguided effort to reconfigure the space-time continuum. Theyre an attempt to overwrite history, to highjack experience, to gaslight and usurp. Lies are an essential impossibility, yet I try to execute them day after day after day. Some days, I even manage to convince myself Ive successfully executed them. Of course, thats a lie, too.
          Im not really sure when or why I started lying. I know it had something to do with power. Control, too. My lies offered me a mechanism for getting what I wanted, what I thought I needed: respect, recognition, control. I only wanted to be seen, to be enough. I never wanted to be the best; I only wanted to be good enough. My lies gave me agency, and as inauthentic as that agency was, it sure as hell felt good, so the lies grew.
          I think I finally understand why it was so easy for Joe Nuxhall to be honest. Being honest is really the only possible—the only sustainable—outcome.
          It took Joe Nuxhall eight years to get back to the Big Leagues after those five earned runs in two-thirds of an inning. Eight years. And the weight of those five runs is nothing compared to the weight of the lies Ive told.
          The weight of those five runs cost Joe Nuxhall eight years; it took him that long to get back to even. I wonder how long itll take me. I wonder if its even possible.

Tommy Vollman is a writer, musician, and painter. He has written a number of things, published a bit, recorded a few records, and toured a lot. Tommy’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the “Best of the Net” anthology. His stories and nonfiction have appeared (or will appear) in issues of The Southwest Review, Two Cities Review, The Southeast Review, Palaver, and Per Contra. He has some black-ink tattoos on both of his arms. Tommy really likes A. Moonlight Graham, Kurt Vonnegut, Two Cow Garage, Tillie Olsen, Willy Vlautin, and Albert Camus. He's working on a novel entitled Tyne Darling and has a new record, “Youth or Something Beautiful”, which was released in April 2019. He currently teaches English at Milwaukee Area Technical College and prefers to write with pens poached from hotel room cleaning carts.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

My Name Could Be Toby Gardner

by Ann S. Epstein

I lost my name. Perhaps the name was never mine to begin with. In which case, will I ever own one? Or, if the name was once in my possession, can I get it back?

People on intimate terms with their names stir envy in me. When I hear mine, no inner voice says “Me”. The roots of this dissociation sprout in a family soil that teems with multiple, secret, and lost names. Such history is common among immigrants who changed their names to assimilate. For me, not being my name also stems from my family’s particular pathology.

My late mother, for example, Kate Alsofrom Savishinsky, could be called Gussie Shirley Savage. Like many Eastern Europeans who came to the United States at the turn of the last century, names on both sides of my family were Anglicized or phoneticized. Thus, my father’s Polish surname “Czauczinski” became “Savishinsky” at Ellis Island. When my mother married him, she shortened it to “Savage” at work, which was also the name we put on the waiting list at the Chinese restaurant where, like other New York Jews, we often ate supper on Sunday nights.

The story behind “Gussie” is explained in this letter I submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with my mother’s Medicaid application:

The enclosed 1911 birth certificate erroneously lists my mother’s first name as Gussie rather than Kate. Her aunt, who was interviewed at the lying-in hospital, had limited English, and thought the official was asking for her name (which was Gussie) instead of the baby’s name. My mother’s Austrian maiden name, spelled “Alzufrumm” on her birth certificate, was later Anglicized to “Alsofrom”. I am also faxing a copy of my 1946 birth certificate, which lists my mother’s name correctly as Kate Savishinsky and her birthplace as the United States. I trust that with both documents, her citizenship will be established for Medicaid purposes.

“Shirley” was yet another twist in the Medicaid application, which also required a copy of my mother’s Social Security card. I found one issued in her work name, Kate Savage, but needed a card under her legal name, Kate Savishinsky. She’d owned one when I’d moved her into assisted living a few years earlier, but had soon lost it, along with her purse, and her mind.
Since my mother was a packrat, I asked my brother Steve (whose first name is Joel, but Joel is what we called an older cousin) to check for a Social Security card in the possessions he’d stored when we cleaned out her apartment. He discovered a card, but it identified her as Kate Shirley Savage. We’d never heard the name “Shirley” and assumed it was an error. But after phoning my mother’s sister Fae (called Fannie or Feigele as a child), I emailed my brother:

Dear JSS: [Note: He and I avoid the first-name problem by using our initials]

Shirley (surely) you won’t believe this. Mom’s real middle name is Shirley! When I shared my tale of woe with Aunt Fae, we had the following conversation:

Me: I know Mom used “Savage” in business, but who knows where “Shirley” comes from.
Fae: Shirley is your mother’s middle name.
Me: I thought it was Sheba, from her Jewish name, Kayla Shayva.
Fae: No, it’s Shirley, although she’d call me a liar for saying so. She wanted it to be Sheba.
Me: Huh? Mom hated that name on account of the Shirley Booth movie “Come Back Little Sheba.” Sheba was a runaway dog.
Fae: No, your mother always liked the name Sheba.
Me: Did my father know my mother’s real middle name was Shirley?
Fae: I have no idea what your father knew about your mother.


As my maternal grandmother Mindel (who was registered as Minnie at Ellis Island) used to say, “I’m glad I didn’t die yesterday or I wouldn’t have known that.” I was fifty-nine when I discovered my mother’s real middle name. She was too far gone by then for me to ask her why she claimed it was “Sheba,” but even if she’d been cogent, I doubt she would have told me the truth. In her typical long-winded fashion, she would have narrated a convoluted story in which she was the aggrieved party or the heroine. And, as my straight-talking Aunt Fae said, my mother would have called her sister a liar.

If learning my mother’s identity meant sorting truth from fiction in her nonstop chatter, figuring out my father’s entailed filling in gaps of silence. He was not just taciturn, like many men of his generation. When I was a graduate student in psychology, I recognized in him the classic symptoms of a schizoid personality, someone incapable of relating to others. As a child, however, I knew only that his muteness made me ashamed to invite friends to our apartment.

Despite his lack of connection to others, or perhaps because he lived inside himself, my father seems to have had a strong sense of who he was. Except for passively allowing my mother to use Savage at the office and Jade Garden, he refused to simplify his last name. On the other hand, in elementary school, he’d dropped his first name in favor of his middle one. He stuck with this choice, even when it was later ignored by virtually everyone, who called him by a nickname. My father was born Layzeh Dovid in the shtetl of Yadow, and called Louis David when he arrived in America as a boy. For untold reasons, he hated the name Louis and answered only to David. In his teens, friends nicknamed him “Cal” after President Calvin Coolidge, a man stingy with words, who the press had dubbed “Silent Cal.” The president’s reticence may have been a political choice. No one was aware, or admitted, that my father’s was a handicap.

As young adults, my parents met at a summer resort on the Jersey shore, where they’d each rented cabins with their friends. Urged by her bunkmate to check out a guy named Cal, my mother approached the man she hoped would be him, but was told by that man, “I’m not Cal. He’s the bum over there.” Redirected, she paired off with the guy who was Cal for the summer. Back in the Bronx that fall, my father phoned her to resume their courtship:

He: Hello, this is David.

She: David who?
He (annoyed): You know, David.
She: I don’t know anyone named David.
He: We’ve been dating for two months!
She: You mean Cal?

Friends and family never called my father anything but Cal after the nickname was bestowed in the 1920s. Yet he steadfastly thought of himself as David until his death in 1997. What they intended as a playful moniker was to him a painful reminder of his isolation. I never heard my father protest—he was incapable of direct confrontation—but “David” was how he always introduced himself and the name he signed on his anniversary cards to my mother.

My father was equally reticent about his own parents. He never spoke of his father, who died when I was a toddler. The story as reported by my mother—or invented by her; one could never be sure, especially about tales that cast my father’s family in a bad light — is that her father-in-law was an alcoholic who disappeared for long stretches of time when my father was growing up. As the oldest child, my father was pressured by

his demanding mother to become “the man of the house,” a worldly role for which he was ill-suited, and his shame and bitterness muted him for life. So total was his silence that my brother and I did not know our paternal grandfather’s name until we were in our 40s. We were gathered for the bar mitzvah of my brother’s younger son, Jacob, when my brother and I asked our father the name of his father. His reply: “Jacob. I assumed my grandson was named for him.” I don’t know which of us was more surprised at the other’s not knowing.
              Gussie, Cal, Steve, and Toby
           a.k.a. Kate, David, Joel, and Ann

The true name of our father’s mother was revealed even later, ten years after our father’s death. My brother, cousins, and I had called her Grandma Lillie, which we assumed was short for Lillian. But on my 61st birthday, my father’s sister told me that their mother was born Ruchel (Rachel) Leah. She reinvented herself in America, dropping her first name and applying the initial of the second to one that may have sounded less Jewish or more elevated than her peasant upbringing. My aunt, and the rest of my father’s family, assumed that my daughter, Rebecca, was named for her, this time repurposing the “R.” I informed my aunt otherwise, but perhaps I should have let the misconception survive. A lineage buried in silence deserves to create its own stories.

My full name is Ann Toby Savishinsky Epstein. When I married my first husband, few women kept their maiden names. Since I was not enamored of mine, and was years shy of understanding and loving my father, I took my spouse’s last name, which was Epstein. To preserve part of my identity, however, I began using Savishinsky as a middle name. Eight years later, when he and I divorced, I kept Epstein to maintain continuity for my young daughter and because I’d published under that name. I still sometimes think of myself as a Savishinsky, though. Whenever a group is split alphabetically into A-M and N-Z, my instinct is to head for the one that includes “S.”

Twenty-five years later, when I remarried, I continued to use Epstein. My daughter was grown, and my career was well established by then, as was the practice of women not changing their names. However, my second marriage raised the possibility of yet another name for me.

I was called by my middle name, Toby, until kindergarten, when I insisted on using my first name, Ann. I happily shed Toby because it was an easy mark for alliterative teasing. I was called “Toothless Toby” after a fall knocked out my baby teeth years before the permanent ones grew in. “Tubby Toby” didn’t fit the skinny kid I was, but amused my tormenters. Toby could also be a boy’s name (Toby Tyler and the Circus was a popular children’s book at the time). The final humiliation was a television show about an elephant named Toby. When I switched to Ann, teasing rhymes like A”, Ann, frying pan” sounded too impersonal to bother me. Perhaps it was also an early indication that I didn’t think of the name “Ann” as really belonging to me.

Despite my becoming Ann at school, to my family I remained Toby. So, when I married my second husband forty-five years later, my Aunt Honey, whose real name is Anita, sent us a check made out to “Gerald and Toby Gardner.” Our joint account was under Gerald Gardner and Ann Epstein. He endorsed the check and I went to the bank to explain the situation to the teller:

Me: My aunt thinks I took my new husband’s last name, which is “Gardner.” (As further proof that I wasn’t faking a family relationship, I pointed out that the middle name on my driver’s license, Savishinsky, was also my aunt’s last name.)
Teller: No problem, I understand. (Long pause …) Who’s Toby?

The teller’s perplexity mirrors mine. None of my names: Ann or Toby, Savishinsky or Epstein, feels like me.

Funny as name anecdotes can be, it is also tragic when ancestral names are lost. But in addition to this universal phenomenon, my personal disconnection is the legacy of my odd family history. I question whether I am alone in having a nameless self, or if others share my experience. Even people who dislike their names don’t necessarily question that they belong to them. And what of those who are adopted or assume a different name for fame, fortune, or fraud? Did Norma Jean think of herself as Marilyn? Did James Gatz fully inhabit the person of Jay Gatsby? Did Anna Anderson

believe herself to be Princess Anastasia? Or did they coexist with a stranger who posed as them?
Now in my mid-seventies (and single again), I occasionally braid my hair in the style I wore as a little girl. I wonder if I am not just attempting to recapture my youth but to become Toby again. Up until age five, I had only one name. I may have been haunted by an unhappiness I was too young to name—my father’s silence, my mother’s lies—but I knew who I was. Rejecting that name may have been a child’s way of rejecting that family. Decades later, with more wisdom and empathy, perhaps I am ready to reclaim as mine the family that made me.

One solution to my self-alienation is to think of myself as the name I like best. Each has something to recommend it. Toby is uncommon and cute. I value creativity and I’m small, so the name fits. Ann, Hebrew for grace, is reassuring in the face of aging and death. My signature initials also appeal. ASE is the suffix for enzyme or catalyst, and I like to see myself as an agent of change. Yet, there’s no satisfying click when I drop any of these names into the slot labeled “me.” I’m still unwilling to give up the hope that someday I will find, and know, my name, but I fear it is too late. Either our names become us when we are young or they are forever lost.

Ann S. Epstein writes novels, short stories, memoir, craft articles, and book reviews. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her novels are On the Shore, Tazia and Gemma, and A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve. Her stories and nonfiction work appear in Sewanee Review, PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, Saranac Review, The Madison Review, The Minnesota Review, Passages North, Summerset Review, Red Rock Review, William and Mary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and many other literary journals. In addition to writing, she has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and a M.F.A. in textiles. Her stories often have historical settings that mix fact and fiction. Her nonfiction explores the people, places, and events that shape us, especially the residue left by family and friends. Her website is: