I hold open doors for old ladies. I never pick up pennies or the occasional dollar in the street. I tell my older sister Nan and Mom I love them, wash the dishes and beat at the dust. I polish dull spaces and pull open curtains to let light in. I waltz to Tchaikovsky nightly, and I vow never to lie.
I take to my classrooms like a lion. I field questions from students, absorbing each inquiry, whether it's about Hemingway's iceberg theory or the metaphors in The Awakening. I praise effort and tell them my doors are open. I'm two hours early to appointments.
I even jog at night, legs moving in precise motion, down streets of small frame houses with porch swings and families that are whole, even if they're in old Toyotas and beaten-down Subarus. I move fast, but I smile at passers-by. A small, true, cracked smile.
No slick movie star smiles for me.
Yes, I bear a name on a birth certificate. A surname that's sharp, that connotes my paternity, that resonates with embezzlement and excuses.
Botkin. Derived from the Old English bodkin, a weapon. A dagger.
I could change it, but there's so much involved. It's a stripping of things, the removal of your original existence from one document, then another. And meanwhile you wander through a kind of Wonderland without a name. That is, until someone else codifies a new one. And even that's something arbitrary, something plastic. That's what Nan says.
"Once, I thought I'd like to be Nancy Dubois Chevalier", she says. "But I couldn't make the change. You'll have to love me as a Botkin."
Meanwhile, I promote honor codes in class and promise immediate expulsion to anyone who copies one word. One period. One fucking comma.
Of course, Dad would disagree. If he weren't dead. If he hadn't embezzled from the law firm, starting with a few hundred dollars. And then another couple hundred until he'd gotten into full-on laundering with his friend Trent, his crime inflated like the biggest of balloons. Their last caper had involved bilking $500,000 from an orphanage in the guise of two benevolent Irish investors, earning them the name The O'Shame Swindlers.
"Everyone does it", Dad claimed, the day of his trial, almost fifteen years ago. "It's not stealing. It's taking. Life's a jungle, son."
"It is when they take all the furniture", I said. Of course, they did, after they took him. They took the turd-colored couch, the elegant oak coffee table, the whole glass dining set, each item gone in a heartbeat, leaving a naked expanse of space, and Mom, Nan and me, holding onto each other and murmuring empty comfort. Cursing Dad. We tried to convince ourselves that smaller spaces were more real; more organic. That we didn't need these big rooms. Especially Mom.
Dad died ten years ago. It wasn't a suicide; not the kind with a gun or a rope. But I just know it was more than sickness. He'd deflated in that cell, unable to make deals and transfers. Tell jokes. Color outside the lines. He walked about constrained hallways and a yard surrounded by barbed wire, his wife and children miles away. He trod a narrow line. It was all for us, he said. We were ungrateful reprobates.
Nan never went. Not once. And I can't completely blame her. Once we went out to dinner at sushi joints and French restaurants, Nan, me, Mom and Dad; a neat little square. We absorbed ourselves in easy laughter. Flame-haired harpists played Debussy. Dad promised better homes, more time with us, in a charismatic baritone. He joked and called Mom nicknames, while she pretended to protest: Pennie; Nellie; Pen; P-pie. She'd pretend to shove him, and Dad would kiss her. Dad taught us how to lob Junior Mints at noisy assholes in the movies over Mom's half-protests.
"Find your focus", he'd say, taking each of our hands, "and lob it nice and slow. You go too fast, you're going to get into trouble. Fast people always fail. Strategize, guys!"
And we'd lob the mints slow, but with the same kind of ferocity with which he criticized people's attire, their awkward gait, the secrets he always claimed they carried.
He'd cheer when the Junior Mints landed on target, his mustache expressing joy, his eyebrows dancing too. If we failed, he'd laugh and tell us to try again. There was time, so much time, he promised us.
Each night, I conjure unwritten futures. I try to play out the best scenarios like film reels. Tenured professor, big-name author, bon vivant. Traveller, moving from one point to another. I want to become a philanthropist and give to the less fortunate. To Mom. To Nan. I want to shape my own stories with a certain ease, accomplishments rising to the top, in spite of the muck. I want to bend stories into beautiful shapes. And I want people to call me a good man. No, good's too abstract. A mensch, even though I'm an Episcopalian.
I try not to think of the things that could happen. Embezzling department funds, lying to obtain a loan or a credit card, losing an apartment, losing my clothing, losing my position, my sanity and going on some unhinged rant, destroying some professor's office. Sometimes, I even think of being reduced to a naked waif. I try to laugh. But such things happen. You start small and end up leaving hundreds of people in your wake. Good, hardworking men and women. Orphans, without any connection, and only naked names to cling to.
I think of the time Nan got drunk and high and dared me to steal a mannequin from the mall. This was right after Dad went to prison and just as I was about to start college. I'd elected to stay in town and go to school here. To leave seemed oddly cruel. I had visions of Nan and Mom falling apart before I could even get back, pieces of smiles and hair disintegrating like some really bad sci-fi movie.
We stood outside the window of Rufus Dupree's Clothing Emporium with its almost soulless plate glass windows, the smiling white figure staring, as if we were normal. Two siblings just browsing, people who still had a certain ease in life, meandering at will. The mannequin bore a kind of confidence in its smile and posture, a kind of easy bearing. Like Dad, in the before era.
"Are you going to steal it?" Nan said. She leaned in so close I could smell the pot and the four Fat Tires she'd consumed. It made me want to puke, the smell of my sister. She always applied jasmine-flavored deodorant, mixed with the easy burn of Camels and the sweetness of Life Savers.
The crowds shuffled around us. Men and women in khakis, teens in ripped blue jeans, all moving, moving. Laughing, joking, cursing. I hated them.
"I can't", I said.
Nan stared at me.
"You can't?" she said. "What are you? A chickenfucker?"
She shoved me once towards the window. And again. There was a dark force to the shove; a weight I'd never noticed. Nan and I had play-fought before, but with a kind of lightness; a contrivance.
"Are you a motherfucker?" Nan said. "Can't you take? Come on. Everyone takes. They take families, don't they? They take livelihoods? It's a fucking mannequin."
"Nan, come on", I said. "Let's just go."
A long-haired brunette with a hawkish nose walked past and shook her head. There was something even more shameful in the gesture than in calling out a thousand names.
"You're an embarrassment", Nan said. Her voice cracked, and a tear slid rapidly down her face. "Just an embarrassment. It's easy to take, little brother. For fuck's sake, can't you just go in there and grab it?"
"I can't, Nan", I said. "We're better than this."
The mannequin stared, still smiling.
"Chickenfucker", Nan said, but she just stared back at the plastic figure.
Nan and I never talked about that incident, although there are times she's said she was a bitch back then, words spoken with hushed regret. But I still conjure that possibility. I picture myself taking the plastic smiling man and running off. I think of that hidden power: the electrical energy of seizing things. But I also think of one action bearing consequences, one item out of its place, order disrupted. A space where people deemed me a thief, a malcontent, things that couldn't be scrubbed out no matter how you tried.
And, of course, I think of Dad; that first embezzlement. A few hundred dollars. Maybe it seemed easy, something that could be paid back. Then the impulse hit him again. And again, until it became impossible to extract himself. Until he had to swindle fucking orphans just to maintain some semblance of power.
I save money, draw up budgets. Work in the dark. I try to stifle a thousand wants. Bottles of Merlot, BMWs, trips to European castles. I have even cancelled all streaming services. Too many movies that glorify theft, embezzlement, with first-rate actors. Ocean's 11. Ocean's 12. Catch Me If You Can.
Nan thinks it's ridiculous. She wants me to relax, to tell her jokes, like the old days when I could tell the darkest ones with great aplomb. I wish I could. Tell a joke. Tell jokes about suicide and Hitler and greed and make Nan laugh. Make us all laugh; harsh little laughs. Let life move around me, like with Nan. She works as a bartender, drinks copious amounts of Merlot. She likes to drive around the dark spaces of town late at night, absorbing the butter-colored beauty of streetlamps, the grace and verve of the avenues when people head homeward. She asks me to come with her sometimes. She says it's liberating to be out and about.
"Do you ever want to marry?" I ask Nan on one such drive. We're just cruising up Mason Avenue in her 1998 Toyota Corolla. Little beige and stucco-colored coffee shops, ethnic grocery stores and antique shops line each side of the street, which is bisected by a railroad track. The moon drifts in and out of clouds with a playfulness that puts me in a bad mood.
"Marry?" Nan says. "Are you kidding me? And change my name like that? That's such bullshit. No, little brother, give me the bartender's life. At least I get to hear the stories, and that's a hell of a lot better. I get to look in on people's lives, the bad marriages, the stupid things they do, the jobs they've lost or gained. It's fun. You know I love a good story."
"I wish they expected men to change their surnames", I say, looking at Nan. She has this beatific look, as the car moves forward, farther from the bar, farther from the past. And in this moment, I envy, love and hate her.
"It's just a name, Nicky", Nan says.
"It's easy for you", I say. "You're not the guy here. You can change your name. You're expected to. I'm the man. The fucking heir."
"You're the man?" Nan says and laughs. "That's news."
On the radio, Katy Perry is singing "Roar" and I can't help but smile watching Nan sing along, word for word. I stare into the night. The moon disappears behind a dark gray cloud, and it looks as if it wants to tumble down upon me, spill rain and a thousand other things.
My surname still stares up at me from bank statements, on the English Department webpage, on my mail. Nick Botkin. Nicholas Botkin. Nicholas Alexander Botkin. And some nights I still hear Dad's laughter, ghostly, baritone and discordant. He is on the phone with his partner-in-crime, Trent, talking of transferring assets, using words like redistribute, protect, guard, drain, pump. He is splayed across the turd-covered living room couch, speaking the words with a singsong quality. His feet are kicked up, laying claim to his dominion. Nan and I are at the top of the stairs watching, two pyjama-clad shadows, keeping one secret of many that will be revealed anyway. Nan still seems so tall; it's soothing. Her hair is still long now, and not yet in that blunt bob, although she has the same long nose. She takes my hand. I seem even shorter.
Another image: one of the few times I visited him in prison. I was still in graduate school and was twenty-three. He was gaunt, in orange, calling me his boy. Speaking the words with a quiet desperation, his mustache no longer bristling with confidence.
"How's your mother?" he said.
"She's alright", I said. What I don't tell him is Mom says she loves him over and over, in between calling him a cocksucker, an asshole, a son-of-a-bitching dreamkiller.
"You working hard?" he said.
"Yup", I said. "Grades are all As. They think I could get a few awards too."
"Well, the world takes", he said. "You deserve as much. But remember, it's a fucking jungle out there. Watch yourself. I wanted to give you all something better. You know that, right?"
"I do", I said "I always knew that."
"Always see the end at the beginning", he said. "Look ahead. Strategize. Do what you need to, but don't get caught in the process."
The bald guard motioned to the clock, and I nodded. I was relieved to be walking out before he could impart any more wisdom.
"Well, I love you son", he said, pressing his hands to the glass. "I want you to be happy. And your mother and Nan. Tell them."
I told him that I was happy as I walked away, and that Nan was doing well. The words echoed and died, and the guard stood still and silent.
Sometimes, while dressing before my classes, I decide against using any cologne. Dad used Old Spice and I prefer Polo. Or preferred. But cologne is cologne. It has a slickness, a certain sheen, that covers up much, even though Dad said it helps to sell yourself. Now I stick to deodorant, herbal shampoos, mint gum, the sweetest, most down-to-earth scents.
On the fifteenth anniversary of his imprisonment, I have a glass of Merlot for breakfast. I blast Alice Cooper instead of Tchaikovsky; insist on being called by my first name: Nick. It's short. Precise. At least Mom picked that one. If Dad had had his way, I'd be Cyril or Reginald. Names that translate to lordly and king, respectively.
I issue an edict to each class, insisting that the name Botkin not be used in any capacity.
"You can call me Nick", I say to my Creative Writing 420 class. "Call me Nicky, Nicksie, even Saint Nick. But I don't deliver Christmas presents. And that includes As."
I repeat the same spiel in English 101, in Beginning Creative Writing 220, in my seminar on Yates too.
But the world insists on formality. Credit card companies and cell phone companies need my last name. My department head, Dr. Connelly, says friendliness and openness are one thing. First names, though, are problematic.
"We want a good student-professor symbiosis", he says in his office. "But there must be lines drawn too, in order to nurture that relationship and define its parameters."
His bookshelves are lined with copies of Hemingway, Updike, Tolstoy, Turgenev. Highlighters are lined up, along with neat, yellow-lined paper. A quartz clock ticks alongside an atomic one whose numbers flip with cold digital silence. It is 16:20 hours. Or 4:20, in civilian time.
"I prefer Nick", I say. "I'd like that respected. Surely, that's not too much to ask. What's the big deal here? It's not like I'm cultivating a harem. I'm not Humbert Humbert."
Dr. Connelly sighs. He clenches and unclenches his fists. He wears khakis and a polo shirt, has a bulbous head and reeks of cologne himself. It's mixed with the hint of something pungent. Onions, perhaps. I know he eats onions as a form of healthy discipline.
"I know that you've had things in the past" he says. "But that's all it is. The past. You're a good instructor, Nick. Focus on that."
"It's easy enough to talk about the past", I reply. "But it's real for me. It's a name. And you and I fully know from history, from literature, what names mean. They hold weight."
I insist, insist, insist on Nick, until Dr. Connelly threatens to have a "conversation". Of course, I leave it. That word glistens like a piece of glass on the tongue. Conversation. I will not walk out carrying shame in a cardboard box. I will not juggle the small things that are mine, the copies of Yates, Cheever, Hemingway, the stacks of mechanical pencils I use to grade, since pens are too cold and arresting. I will comport myself with poise, with the clickety-clack footsteps of a winner, balancing each limb.
On I move, through a month, a semester. I'm Professor Botkin. I go to faculty parties, speak obsequious platitudes, offer to write book blurbs for colleagues. I publish a story in The New Yorker. Tenure becomes a possibility, and my name is bandied about as that of an up-and-coming instructor, a future author. Sometimes, on these good days, I pronounce my surname. Botkin, Botkin, Botkin. But the images still remain. A cell, a body, a home stripped bare.
I take on more courses. Teach fiction and smile through truly execrable stories involving goblin sex and vampires.
I obtain a stack of change-of-name forms. JDF 433. Petition For Change of Name. I add an e to my name, turn it into the French Botkine. I pronounce it over and over. It's befitting of an up-and-coming instructor and has a certain elegance, mingled with a French-style sorrow. All I've done is add a single letter. Sometimes, I think Dad would approve of it, call it a good angle; a sharp angle. The letters stare up at me from the form, curved and a little tenuous. That last e isn't quite complete.
Yash Seyedbagheri is a graduate of Colorado State University's MFA program. His stories "Soon", "How To Be A Good Episcopalian" and "Tales From A Communion Line" were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Yash’s work has been published in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Write City Magazine and Ariel Chart, among others.