On certain spring and autumn days, when the weather rests in that precious liminal space between chill and warmth, sun and shade, sweater and t-shirt, Todd found himself compelled, like Ishmael toward the sea, to stroll through a graveyard. No maps, no companions. No real purpose other than to walk and be alone with his thoughts while, at the same time, not being so alone after all.
Like certain deserted strips of Eastern shoreline in the winter or dimly lit dive bars in the middle of the day, graveyards appealed to the hesitant introvert in him—the creature that yearned not to be entirely alone so much as living at a distance from others. Graveyards were public, but rarely overpopulated. Their crowds made no noise.
There were plenty of graveyards in Washington, D.C. Arlington Cemetery, with its tourists and regimented rows of white tombstones. Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, with its soft, sloping hills that lead down to Rock Creek. Congressional Cemetery, with its sweat-glazed joggers and off-leash dogs. He’d walked through many of them, but recently he’d found himself returning, again and again, to Glenwood Cemetery: a brief, twenty-minute hike from his home in the city’s northeast quadrant.
As an atheist, Sundays held no real spiritual significance for him. But during these recent weeks of plague (weeks that would undoubtedly stretch into months), Sunday mornings had taken a particular sort of urgency. The anxiety on Sunday was all the more palpable, drawn less to domestic concerns and more toward existential ones: health, survival, life. Nothing like a pandemic, and a global one at that, to bring that fear of death into high relief—that fear that was always there, subconsciously, in most of the things he did.
On the side of the graveyard furthest from Todd, just out of visual distance, was another man about the same age, another thirtysomething intellectual writer. In the expanding army of mercenary freelancers, he took pride in the dignity of having a career identity that transcended the need for peer review before publication. The exclusivity of the academia club would within a few years lead to its unapologetic corporate sponsorship, then corporate ownership, and then demise. Once corporate, they’d be "downsized" into initiatives under the Marketing Department. The intellectuals in the business, pretending to be virtuous idealists, complained publicly, and halfheartedly. Only upon downsizing or defection would any academic scholar dare contradict formal policy from the people who fed them. Not for any purely ideological reason, anyway.
But he was before all things an unrecompensed philosopher. He would often rush to point out that while he enjoyed his role as an autodidact scholar, it would have no purpose if he weren't also a teacher of philosophy. DC was crawling with well educated, talentless writers by then. He enjoyed no longer being the only one who knew himself to be a virtuous imposter with only a half-baked set of ideological aspirations. The phrase "fully human" might even fit.
In the most general sense, Zephyr had come here for similar reasons to Todd's, but it would be a few more weeks before either of them would have that insight.
Because he disliked his given name, Zephyr sometimes pronounced his name simply as "Z" if someone asked more than twice. He wrote it sometimes with a proceeding dot, sometimes without, aware that the significance of that dot to him was something he couldn’t successfully explain to anyone. Many correspondents innocently added or excluded the dot as if it were some arbitrary decision that they should take upon themselves to jot past. He grinned and bore these written oversights when they arose, knowing that Nobody ever meant any harm. It wasn’t all bad anyway; at the very least he could use his feeling of being disregarded to pad his repertoire of grievances surrounding his chosen expressions of identity.
Eventually, though, he had come to realize that shame about one's name comes uncomfortably close to shame about who One is. That increasingly bothered him.
Relatively very few people have Z names. The ones who are still alive felt varying degrees of increased importance for that fact, especially ever since the worldwide population count had begun its first abrupt plummet (the one that began just after Canada had had its second, even more abrupt plummet in January of 2021). He correctly figured that the number of living people with Z names was dwindling somewhere near the rate of all the other names. So by virtue of his status as a breathing being rather than an erstwhile one, he represented a larger percentage of living persons with Z names than ever before.
He had not chosen these circumstances, and felt no hesitation in believing that the circumstances had in fact chosen him instead.
Zephyr felt he had a duty to The Name, but carefully remembered that it was not a duty to "his" name. Nobody owns their own name before they have earned it with their last breath. Only by asserting one’s name and fighting for its flawed perfection does the name become one’s own, and only upon final bodily exit.
Names index our individual stories against The Great Conversation of collective human storytellers throughout time and geography. We who still breathe are but stewards of Names. The Names in our collective charge can never die, even when their stewards do. Even if the steward departs by choice.
A Name might disappear from circulation for awhile, sure, encrypted on slabs of stone, etched by craftsmen hoping to immortalize the Name with dense, simple shapes. Names could then peacefully rest in repose, fermenting until exhumed for further service, moments, months, or millennia hence.
Very rarely, but on occasion, a Name could be born for the very first time. But very few would even reproduce themselves once, let alone burst into general acceptance as "real names"—those names with the patina of implied traditional blessings of acceptance, "realness." There was no need for Everyone to know anything all about their assigned name, as long as they knew how to say it, and say it often. This serves Name’s most important, and most magical function: To provide placeholder answers to the the richly nonsensical question "Who are you?" asked as if the answer must be a simple statement of fact.
How could a single word, or even ten of them, come at all close to answering that profound (yet mundane) question truthfully?
The duty Zephyr felt he had was to ensure the survival of the Name and its components—enriching necessarily, therefore, the significance of its Letters. Name had been entrusted to Zephyr by fate, and he would not dishonor fate by taking the Name in his charge for granted. Remembering and recapitulating Name was the highest purpose he could imagine for his years of onomastic scholarship. Name invokes Story. People whose names began with "Z" were petitioned daily to tell some version of theirs, if only to resolve curiosity, confusion, or a well intended attempt to resolve questions they were not permitted to ask. Every transaction had the potential to prompt someone to tell a story about the Name.
Todd and Zephyr had never met before, and they would not until weeks later, under quite different circumstances. But it was on this occasion that for the first time they were within a few hundred meters of each other, even if they could not have known it. It was on this occasion that they would both visit the headstones marking their respective destinations--plots--to heed the callings of two separate granite stones from the same Virginia quarry.
On this day, Zephyr was here because he felt an unfamiliar, intense grief for the death of a stranger whose obituary he had read a few days before. He had never felt anything like this before for a person he had never met, or a Name he had never previously uttered. He vaguely hoped to understand it by showing up.
Remembering someone he had never known until he had read the obituary was so unfamiliar an experience, so very paradoxical, in fact, that the mystery of it numbed him. He must heed without excuse his inner calling to a graveyard, and one particular plot inside it. No thought required until arrival at the headstone of one particular stranger who had chosen for himself the name "Wyatt," which is a name that Zephyr had always found pleasant to read, but less pleasant to say.
Zephyr stared at the stone, and after a few minutes, he realized why he had chosen to come here, and why now. It was for the very purpose of wondering why he would not thoroughly understand his own motivations.
Growing up with the name "Zephyr" taught him well, if cruelly, that he would need to assemble an identity, as Everyone must. He thought most insightfully in metaphor, so he thought of his identity and its self-assembly as a "highly ornate and seductively adorned clockface under which his complex workings would be crafted perfectly, if invisibly," sometimes appending that it "exists in a metric system world, despite that its gears were precisely selected and cut in a combination of empirical units, nonstandard measurement like ‘cigarettes’ ‘blueberries,’ and ‘Liters’" that weren’t liters at all, but quart-sized milk jugs whose units of measure he stubbornly reserved the right to name as he pleased, since they were only ever debatable abstract ideas to begin with. Not to mention (any further than this) that he relied heavily on unmeasurable quantities, such as "layers of moral gravity and significance," which never converted easily to any existing standard.
He cried for a few minutes while staring at the name on the stone because he knew that he needed to, even if he didn't understand why. Only when he confronted his grief so directly did he ever fully experience himself. Zephyr was earning his name.
He placed three white roses at the stone, and paused. He read the obituary one last time, then slid it into the envelope.
June 16, 2020
JAMES WYATT WALCOFF ("Wyatt")
2003 - 2020
Son, nephew, cousin and friend passed away on June 9, 2020 at his home in Potomac, Maryland. Born on January 21, 2003 to Melinda Richardson and Alan Walcoff. Wyatt was known for his quiet yet stoic demeanor, a smile that could light up a room and his quirky sense of humor. When Wyatt was asked to describe three things he loved in life he chose animals, sports and girls. In recent years Wyatt developed a passion for weight training. He was an excellent student and loved creative writing. Wyatt was a compassionate young man with an intense sense of empathy. He was also subject to the quiet and insidious disease of depression which he courageously battled for several years. He chose to end his life in an effort to find peace. He is survived by his loving parents, his family and friends and his special love Sophia.
Also in that envelope was a letter that Zephyr had written to the deceased, pointedly signing it with his full legal name, and pointedly using the chosen name of the deceased, Wyatt.
Though nobody would ever see it -- a rainstorm later that week would turn it to unreadable pulp -- he wrote:
You came to know your name, and you chose to make it yours. You escaped your parentheses, and you did it because you had to. I will write your chosen name prominently in my story, so that it may have continued life, inspiring those who read it. They will wonder forever what you always knew: who you are. I will honor your story through mine.
ZEPHYR ANATOLIOS STANZIOS
Rising again, Zephyr smiled and walked off, satisfied that he had finally accepted as "real" the strange and powerful feeling of love for a deceased stranger he'd only ever known as a few paragraphs of text.