Mom named me “A.” Her last name was Kwikowski, good Polish stock. The Kwikowskis that settled in Milwaukee did well for themselves. Steel mills and breweries. The Kwikowskis that left the city, did not. Mom was from the side that migrated to New Town which, in its day, thrived. Today, with only three hundred and forty-two people, not so much.
Mom, being a typical New Townsian teenager, was bored. High school years consisted of flippin’ burgers at the Dairy Queen followed by drunken Friday night football games followed by romps in the hay. Real barnyard hay. Mom knew she’d get pregnant. That was the plan. Knocked up, she’d get married, work at the beauty salon and shop at Walmart. She was considered ambitious in New Town. She assumed love would be thrown in there somewhere, but alcohol has a way of turning lust into love until the hangover the next morning.
I was a product of tequila shots and a lot of love at a football victory party. Mom’s not sure which of the New Town Tigers fathered me, but she knew didn’t want to spend the next sixty years with any of them. Which is how she came up with my name: A Kwikowski; A Kwiki for short.
I never thought my name odd ‘til I went to kindergarten. When my kindergarten teacher read my name as “A,” she thought the office had made a mistake so she asked, “What does the A stand for, dear?”
“Armpit,” a boy behind me whispered.
“Adam,” I blurted. Adam I was throughout my kindergarten career.
But like my mom who got easily bored with men, I got bored with “Adam.” So in first grade, I told my teacher that the A stood for “Alan.” Of course, New Town being a small town, word got out around the kids. They knew that my name was actually A. They tried to correct Miss Johnson, but teachers are creatures of rules and regulations. No one should be called a letter. “Alan” satisfied her.
Second grade, I was Aaron. Third grade, Andrew. In middle school, I got creative. Ajax, Amadeus, even Aladdin, though that one didn’t fly. I took on the personalities of my names, too. Picturing a permanent fig leaf like the one in the Adam and Eve poster in Sunday school, Adam liked to scratch himself. Aaron liked to flap his wings to ruffle homework pages. I don’t remember why. Maybe it had something to do with the sound of the name. Andrew was more dignified. On the first day of third grade, Andrew came dressed in glasses, thick, black plastic ones from the dollar bin at Walmart, and a clip-on bow tie stolen from the used car salesman Mom was dating. Johnny Richardson proved to the other kids that the glasses were fake by sticking his finger through the frame and poking Andrew in the eye. Andrew decided that dignified wasn’t worth the pain.
When Aramis graduated junior high, Mom had had enough of obese farmers’ wives complaining because the hairstyles she gave them didn’t transform them into Charlize Theron. She decided to open her own salon in the progressively green capital city of Madison, but not before trading in her Ford Taurus for a Prius.
Once we shoved all of Mom’s Walmart treasures into an apartment above her new hair design shop on Willie Street, I spent the rest of the summer hanging out at James Madison Beach. There I learned a few things about the big city. People come in more than one color. People speak more than one language. People do their best to stand out. Tattoos, piercings, dreadlocks. If you stand out in a small town, people won’t look at you but will talk about you plenty. Conforming is a New Town survival technique. A learned that in kindergarten.
On my first day at East High School, the geometry teacher, Mr. Patel, predictably asked me what the “A” stood for.
Having learned a thing or two on that beach, I replied, “Nothin’.”
Mr. Patel nodded and checked me off his list. I waited for the boy behind me to say, “A is for Asshole.”
Instead, the girl next to me, blond with streaks of pink in her hair, leaned over and whispered, “Nice to meet you A. I’m B.”