ACROSS THE HIGHWAY are a Taco Bell, a Comfort Inn, and a free-standing building that houses a Chinese buffet. A Case tractor company is nearby, and what looks to be an old service station, deserted, with orange-and-tan panels on the garage door and wild grass sprouting through the asphalt. Somewhat disconcerting is an abandoned Wal-Mart, a modern-day Arkansas standard. The ghosts of its letters hang on the wall above the empty storefront.
As a child, I was fascinated by stories of old towns that had lost their hold upon the clay bank and then slipped—stone floor and housetop—into the Mississippi River. I imagined their uncorrupted churches, rot-free homes and schools, as lying at the bottom of a silty floor, a park for scuba divers and catfish. But now the towns along the river disappear in less dramatic ways. The most vital part of such places is the interstate, which slowly loosens the grip of the desiccated societies. In time, they slough their skins, begin their slide toward the asphalt channels that bring whatever life they have, then pull whatever life they give, toward the larger, more attractive places further down the way.
I sit on the hood of my car in a parking lot, killing time. It’s not a bad choice, this spot—quiet, except for the trucks soaring down the divided four-lane road. Later, I’m expected at a bookstore to read from a novel I’ve written, the last of many trips over the past year. But there’s an hour or more to go yet; fearing I might underestimate the drive to Blytheville, I have arrived far too early.
I’m glad I have my book, not only for the obvious reason that I will read from it, but also because it will help to introduce me, without confusion. For soon I will need to speak my name, and my name is easier seen than said, read than understood. I often have to repeat it—“A.G. It’s initials. A.G.”—and watch as the listener’s eyes blink, sometimes registering, sometimes flitting away as though I’ve assigned an algorithm to compute. The phenomenon has made me self-conscious, at times annoyed, at others defensive. But if I were to add apologetic, I would immediately answer myself with a solid rebuke. I’m the fourth to bear these initials, the latest to carry them, and as I was often told, “None of the others were ever anything but proud.”
And that fact, my name, these two letters, is why there is a significant line between this place and me. Nearly sixty years ago, just across the highway, the cotton fields, and the long wide river that runs a seam down the middle of this country, a boy that I never knew, died. I know his face, though. I know stories of his wit and bravery and skill. I do not know his voice, though I might have, had my mother as a child not purposefully broken the only record made of it because my grandmother could not bear the possibility of ever having it played within her hearing. I have some of his things: his wallet—the one he might have had at the time of his death, as there are dark stains on the leather, perhaps blood—and inside it, pictures of his motorcycles, of him in his Navy uniform, and cards from his club memberships—a high school fraternity comes to mind. I have his cowboy boots—caramel-colored leather, with white stitching and finger holes on the sides to pull them on. There are also things that I had once, but lost—like the silver bracelet he made in shop, carelessly left at a hotel; and his military jacket, worn for farm work and ruined completely. I have his boyhood spectacles. I have his diary, which includes only fourteen entries (January 1, 1938: I have been a good boy and have had a bad cole today). He could not spell very well.
I have these things, have lost those, and above all, I bear his name.
I was never asked or expected to fill a place left open by my uncle’s death, but I have taken it as an unspoken challenge. The name has been something I wanted to be worthy of, and when I have not done so—as I have not always done so—I have been ashamed of failing more than myself. Because when a child is given a name like mine, an old name that was others’—many others’—he feels responsible; at least, I did. There is a legacy in being a namesake that cannot be overlooked, and though pathologies might be attributed to this view, I find them all invalid. I do not live with ghosts in my subconscious, or feel particularly burdened by my history—certainly not in some unhealthy way. Obligations are not always burdens, and even so, it is not always bad to carry them. I prefer to think of the name as something left to me—like land, or a house, or any other bequeathed object—things you may sell, dismiss, ignore, or tend.
Certainly, there have been times when my name was a labor, not because it was my uncle’s, and my grandfather’s, and my great-grandfather’s, but because of its own peculiarity. Confusions are common. It seems the mind is not mapped for the configuration of A and G, but for A and J, and even people who have known me for years will make the occasional slip. It also takes up a good deal of time to explain, most tiresomely in situations when a name must be given only for quick and disposable reference—such as waiting for a table, or making reservations. Sometimes it’s easier to offer a fabrication (on the phone, after a bewildered pause at the other end, I have more than once been asked to spell A.G.). “Ted,” usually works; “Lon” is not bad either, and is at least a derivative of my full first name—Alonzo.
In addition to confusions, there have been disappointments, mostly from childhood. I could never find my name on the revolving stand full of miniature license plates at Stuckey’s, or on the cheap key rings or notepads sold at the beach-side convenience stores. As my first name is obscure, I would have to settle for my second—George—but it was never satisfactory by itself. Neither name alone would have been, in fact. I went by my initials, and somehow the two full names, whether separate, together, or in conjunction with my other middle name (Alonzo George Moore) would not suffice. I was A.G., for better or worse.
The initials have also been provocative. Once it is understood that I do in fact answer to them, it is often wondered what they “stand for”—what meaning the cryptic shorthand is designed to hide, and what precisely is being hidden. The tactless usually assume—once they learn my real name—that I have chosen the shorter form for myself, unwilling to go by names so old and out of fashion. But the truth is that the three who went before me also used initials, and though my great-grandmother was once told she might as well have named her son “One-Two” as “A.G.,” none of the subsequent bearers were particularly dissuaded from continuing the tradition.
But the idea of the letters as name—as symbols that stand for something deeper—brings to the fore what interests me most. Any name, even the most commonplace, suggests more than the utilitarian convenience of distinguishing one child from the other. However much or little thought is put into the process, the name itself stands for something substantive—virtue, idea, notion—that the parents found inspiriting, auspicious, or if nothing else, beautiful. The additional aspect of names like mine, and the qualitative difference I claim for all like me—those named for someone—is that the name has not only its semantic significance, but also a concrete referent in the form of the person for whom one is named. The namesake “Gabriel” is not only “strong man of God,” but also “strong man of God in honor of the strong man of God who was my mother’s father”—hence a name that is both concept and tribute. And while any name can be either scorned or valued—or even changed, for that matter—the child named for another also has the knowledge that he or she is accepting or rejecting bone and blood, the mighty deeds or lovely gestures of some worthy soul whose shade mingles with his own shadow.
After the reading, I make my way back across the river, driving home. I had not planned on stopping in Caruthersville, but no one is expecting me any time soon. It is doubtful I will pass through here again; a side trip will not put me far out of my way.
The town is off the interstate, which may have been old Highway 51 that ran up through the Delta. I don’t know for sure, and Mother doesn’t either, if A.G. rode his motorcycle all the way up here from Mississippi, or whether they pulled the bikes on a trailer behind a car. A boy named Butch came too—an old man by the time I met him at my grandmother’s funeral; some others may have gone as well, but that part of the story is unclear.
I drive in on the road he must have traveled himself, as there is only one way to the town from the west. Long fields stretch out on either side, longer for the tilt of the sun, and a Welcome to Caruthersville sign greets me as I approach. Little could have changed between what he saw then and what I am seeing now, though fifty-seven years have gone by. On the right is a huge cemetery, which I cannot help but feel is a bleak coincidence, then on until I meet the road that leads to town.
I’m searching for something that looks old enough, some place where they could have raced motorbikes. As of twenty years ago I know it was still there, because my brother married a girl whose grandparents lived nearby; one time, like me now, he visited the place out of curiosity. But I didn’t know I would be coming here today, so I didn’t think to ask him what to look for. For now, I have to find my own way.
I pass a high school, a stretch of stores, a church—Sacred Heart, where I say a prayer for my uncle—then on to the close of the street at the river’s edge. At the end of that street, I come to the water, where a faux riverboat is permanently moored. I cut back in a few streets.
There are some places that could, possibly, be it. A recreation center looks too new, but it could have been renovated. I have always imagined it as an inside track—grandstands and flashing lights and sepia-colored dirt—though I was never told that was the case. A place next door looks old and big enough—an unmarked warehouse of some sort with small windows at the top. I pull into the parking lot, content that this is as close as I’ll come.
It’s important for me to get out of the car and stand, as I’ve never felt I was actually in a place until I got out and set my feet on the ground. It’s a Saturday; no one is around as I stare at the building.
It’s hard to mark death in a public place. There are statues and monuments and brass plaques, surely, but those on the whole are meant to honor heroes of good wars or martyrs of good causes—recognized by government decree and set off from the common path. But when a private citizen dies in a public place, it becomes awkward. The modern phenomenon of roadside crosses is perhaps the successor to stone cairns, and only a little more shabby, inadequate, and temporal in its attempt to hallow the place of passing. But not every such place can be marked in even this inadequate way, and what you are left with in such a case is simply standing still, curiously still to any lookers-on, as something is thought of or prayed for nearby.
This must be a common desire, to be where it happened, born of the absurd but powerful notion that somehow, despite time and circumstance, we are belatedly making those we have lost feel less alone, in some years-late communion with their last acts. So I stand near where I think A.G. raced and died, staring at the orange stripes of a newly painted parking lot as I consider again what has been considered before, often, by those who loved him.
They were beautiful Harley-Davidsons, his motorcycles, one black and one white; polished, large, and heavy, the way all old machinery seemed to be. My grandfather, the A.G. my uncle was named after, bought the bikes for him right after he came back from the war. But neither was the one he was riding that day.
They had known so little of the event—even that he had planned to race. Of all things, it was my mother’s confirmation day—so I suppose a Sunday?—and the rest of the family was down in Jackson. Why was he not asked to attend, I wonder? Even when my grandparents were alive, no one would have dared ask, and I suppose everyone is dead now who would know the answer. But I also wonder if he had told them he was going to a race all the way up here, in Caruthersville, Missouri. It seems like an awfully long way to drive from Mississippi. How would he have even known of the race, way down there? And if he had told the truth about not planning to race, when did he change his mind? And why? Why would he have brought this bike instead of the others? Perhaps they were not the kind you raced.
They say that he was going to win the event—held around a circular, fenced track—and that it was almost over when it happened. In another strange, almost unbelievable irony, one of my own father’s college roommates was a boy who was in that very race with A.G., and told him of it when he learned he was dating my mother. Somehow—from this boy? from A.G.’s friend Butch?—the story has come down that the bike had not started right, that it stalled in some way, and that he was making up for lost ground at the end.
It must have been loud there, the sound of all those motors, revving like chainsaws gnawing through timber—and the people cheering and all the lights burning, as I imagine it, lights on poles and lights on stands and the flashing lights of cameras.
He was coming down the home stretch (how hard that is to think of—dying on the home stretch, within sight of the end—the shock and pity of it) when something happened that made him spin out. The one thing they are certain of is that he was thrown off, tossed up in the air, and impaled on an iron fence pole. They say that when they got to him, he was trying to lift himself off; he was almost strong enough to do it. He was very strong.
For a little while, he had raccoon tails on each of his handlebars, which I think was the fashion then. He also put a knob on the steering wheel of his car, so that he could spin it around easily with one hand; my grandfather made him take it off. He could ride any horse, however wild, and would make them rear up just to show you. He could go back in the woods and build carts out of slender tree trunks. Once in high school, when he was thirsty and needed water, a schoolteacher tried to block the door to keep him from getting a drink at the fountain, so he picked him up and moved him right out of the way. Next to his yearbook picture—curly brown hair and hazel eyes and dimples—it says he had “personality plus.” All the boys admired him, called him “Tarzan,” and he dated all the prettiest girls—there was one named Betty with blonde hair, and another named Eleanor with dark. In the Navy, he rescued pilots from crash landings and pulled them from wreckage still raging with fire. Once, he walked on an airplane’s wing, balancing on the tip as it flew along, way up in the air—“high as the clouds,” they always said. High as the clouds.
To name is to limit, to set apart, to draw lines around for identification and understanding. The act both differentiates and restricts, necessarily giving the child the beginnings of an identity while also limiting what he can be. And for the namesake there is an additional consideration. The usual semantic limitation exists in the act of assigning a name, but so does what would seem the very converse of that limitation: a semantic extension, in that the name points both to the present bearer and back to the subject of testament. In this sense, the old way of explaining a namesake as “called for” his father, grandfather, etc. is literally true.
I suspect the inherited name is not as pervasive as it once was. In the past, it was an expression of long lineage, of clansmanship and tribe, a means by which time and death were transcended, an emblematic bond between the living and the dead. While it is not the fashion now, the act of naming took on ceremonies and built modalities that revealed the importance society attached to the deed. Rubrics made certain names the stock of the family, and to repeat them was somehow to reinforce who a family was, and perhaps to claim a timeless continuation of those merits: “Yes, that John is gone, but here is another; that Mary has passed, but this next is made from her, out of the same cloth.” Two hundred years ago, the British had a systematics of honoring: the first son was to be named after the father’s father; the first daughter after the mother’s mother; the second son, the mother’s father; the second daughter, the father’s mother. Not until the third pair were the parents themselves honored. So the oldest were celebrated first, to revive and refresh their connection to the familial consciousness, to keep them from slipping from the table of kindred memory. To jump the system required a good excuse, and even so would be worthy of remark and no small surprise: Luke records the consternation of the community towards Elizabeth and Zachariah when they proposed to call their new son John, as none in their family bore such a name; only an angel could make it all right.
Even when the name was not meant to memorialize another family member, it was often given in respect of a saint with whom the family had close association. By naming the baby after a particular patron, the child was not only provided with an immediate protector and mediator, but also given a history to emulate. In the christening there came a set of instructions, a life pattern to guide the shaky steps of the fresh, bewildered newborn—“Your name is Mark, after the Mark of old, and therefore….” The name became something to live up to, something that must be kept good, not sullied or “run through the mud.” These metaphors brought out the near materiality of the name, integrated with the soul in such a way that the name too was capable of falling from sanctity, of being brought into disgrace.
This early practice reveals a conception of naming and names as a mystical act, both potent and dangerous. It is an understanding as old as it is pervasive, and finds its source in the fundamental belief that to speak a name is to summon one who has power over us, or to seek power over one whose name we speak. God’s name is unspeakable—Jewish words for him are all indirections (Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai), and even spelling “God” fully is forbidden to a Jew. One aspect of exorcism is to require the demon to speak its name, as Jesus Christ demanded of the “legion” that tormented the man in the country of the Gadarenes. Egyptians went by sobriquets, keeping their hidden names secret in order to retain their power and protect them from slipping into their enemy’s use. This existential reverence found its way into mystical names for children, either predicting the child’s future (Bonaventure) or symbolizing some aspect of God’s praise (Amadeus). When Protestants took the fore, hortatory names (Increase, Resolve) and grace names (Purity, Chastity) carried forth the same basic ethos, if not the same theology. Naming practices too had the odor of mystery. Students of onomastics speak of children programmed for the monastery by being named Benedict or Agnes; in a practice frowned upon and ultimately forbidden by the church, boys could be named by assigning a disciple to each of twelve candles: the name of the last one burning became that of the child.
Different too from modern practice was the old taste for repetition, not novelty. The ancient Romans had a cache of given names, the Praenomen, barely over sixty in number, and even then only about a fifth were actually used. The Anglo-Saxons were prone to pass on whole names, or at least their elements (—fried, —wulf). The prominence of certain names that we today consider traditional—James, John, Mary, Anne—showed an affinity for solidarity and establishment.
This propensity is of course the opposite of today’s, when disassociation from the masses is so highly valued. Maybe this is a natural outgrowth of American modernistic thinking; there is no longer much need to acknowledge or memorialize the family in the act of naming, but rather a tendency towards the individual concept—an intention to encapsulate an idea. Even so, the originality so yearned for is not all that far removed from the naming customs of the past. Old hortatory names—Constance and Prudence—gave over in the sixties to Sunshine and Willow, but there was but a worldview between them. The Romantics of the nineteenth century gave us Daisy and Hyacinth, and they live on in the Heathers and Ambers that run about kindergartens now. The commercial culture too has made its mark, but it always had a certain place: there were Jewels, Rubys, and Pearls in the past; Tiffanys have only made them into a chain. Boys’ names are not without their counterparts; the patience of Job has been replaced by the bling of Mercury and Marquis, and the birth of a Lexus has been reported. The old feminine name Mercedes may come back soon, though long detached from its relation to mercy.
It is the idea of the patron, the mediator available for invocation, that has most struck my personal fancy. But a parallel concept also moves me: the old practice of naming to assuage. Often, a newborn was given the name of his deceased older brother or sister, or that of an older relative who had died prematurely. This was especially so when the relative had died by violence. There was some thought that the deceased were recovered or fulfilled in this way. And true to form, children would often grow into the roles of the names given. Like the child christened after a saint, the name became a mandate for right living, which strikes me as a uniquely generous thing to be given.
It is questionable whether you can rectify anything for those behind you: “He made such and such a mistake, so don’t you. Let his life be a warning”—are admonitions heard in all families, but with more direct application for the namesake. It is somehow implied that his mistakes are more likely to be yours as well. Is it because when we learn our context, the breadth of meaning behind our names, those things do in fact become more likely? All I know for sure is that in sharing my uncle’s name, it was as though his fate had become a caution to me—not to die, not to be reckless, not to get myself killed. Rash behavior and careless acts were met with “I guess you won’t survive your boyhood—it seems all the A.G.s are prone to…,” which did, in fact, have its intended effect; it brought me to heel. But not only out of fear; more out of compulsion. I wanted of course to live, but not just for me; for him too, and for my grandfather, who had lost his own namesake. His line had run out and had to be grafted onto that of my father. I could not squander myself; it was his last chance.
I would later learn my idea was wrong—that the racetrack was outside, not inside, and was perhaps once an old horse track, converted. My brother corrects me when I ask, and my mother is not sure where I could have gotten the impression that I have always entertained. So I have not, in fact, been exactly where he died, though within the close vicinity. In the end, what I have indulged myself with in Caruthersville has been conjecture, an imagination of what A.G.’s death was like. But that strikes me as familiar, as I and others have always, and will always, imagine what his life was like, and more irresistibly, what it would have been like had he lived.
It is easy to make too much of things, but would he have married Eleanor? She came to his funeral. And my grandfather had planned to buy him a tractor company in Hazelhurst; would that have been his occupation? When his old diary is consulted, are there portents in it, signs of what was to be and what might have been? For example: 1/14 Today I went to the show and saw Submarine D1. I liked it very much. A.G. Moore. I looked it up; it was a war movie that featured a young, uncredited Ronald Reagan. Was that my uncle’s first fascination with the Navy, and why he joined when the time came? Or this one: 1/13 Today Miss Laura told me to get a Bible book so I did. It cost $2.00. Spot cash. No credit. I hear my grandfather in that—the jargon of a horse and cattle trader. A.G., to his disappointment, was not as good an auctioneer as my grandfather; you could hear that on the record they made of him trying, the one my mother destroyed. Still, I think he would have been a shrewd businessman. In that respect he was like his father, whom he so wanted to please; he wanted to be his father, in truth, and though their relationship was a stormy one, his idolization comes through: 1/6 Tonight Daddy will be home; 1/7 Tonight Daddy said I was a good boy.
For some reason, he was taken to another town after the accident and died there. Someone brought him back to Mississippi, following the path of the river home. A long, long ride.
Though I had been wrong about most of the day, the part that was undeniably true occurred to me as I left, in the very act of leaving the town itself. For in doing so, I was seeing what he never got to: the town from the other side, from the west, as the sun set and the day and place were put behind him. Had things gone differently, that day and town might have been casually remembered, remarked upon from time to time, forgotten in favor of all the other living that had been done, and all that was yet to be. Instead, in leaving it, I was living the rest of his tale. Thank You for Visiting Caruthersville. Come Again.
It is a small name. Very small; and the questioner is right to ask what it means: the letters do in fact stand for more, a deposit of blood, a trove and horde of lives lived behind my own.
But mostly they stand for him, and for those like him who were cut short, laid waste, pulled down before their proper end; for all the souls ascended, for the confluence of the ages.
I have stood within miles of his death, more than a half century past, and within the air of the last life that he lived. I have stood at the foot of the river, as the delta of all that he was, and in me, of all that he remains. And I stand here still; in his name.