"So, what do you want me to call you then?"
"You want me to call you Nothing?!"
"For 18 years, I have raised you with a beautiful name, and now you want me to reduce that name to Nothing?"
"That's right, Mama," he said, shifting his eyes away from her gaze.
Adlieme thought for a moment. The idea of referring to her only child as anything but Tutliem gave bitter bile from her stomach a slow passage to her throat.
Every year it was something else.
This was her father's doing.
Tutliem stood in front of her, arms outstretched as though begging for mercy. His eyes were as wide and wet as his first day of life, and he stood tall and skinny as a post. For all she had done to stack food onto his plate over the years, he never ate more than he could manage or would forget to eat the meals she packed. More often than not, he would give his meals away.
He was an earnest boy, sweet and gentle to the core and to her mortification, more susceptible to influence than she would like to confess. Adlieme had to do her fair share of monitoring of his friendships to ensure that some fool wasn't misleading him or taking advantage. And unfortunately for her, she learned very early on in his life that as soon as one opportunist left, another would follow, right on cue.
He wasn't a stupid boy, far from it. Like her, he was adept at math and science and could solve most problems brought his way. He graduated at the top of his class with more honors than she knew his school had to offer and had won himself a few scholarships as a result.
"Grandpa said that my name means Gentle Fool!" he shouted. "I know you said to no longer listen to him, but Grandpa has never once lied to me, Mama. So, if it's true that my name means that I am a fool, then I want nothing to do with that name. And until I come up with something else, I would rather go by Nothing."
"Is that what this is all about?" she asked, tempering her rage.
"Your grandfather told you something, and you immediately believed him before asking me. Now you have decided to change your name? Is that what you would have me think, Tutliem?"
Tutliem looked away from his mother's stare. Adlieme's eyes could burn holes through brick walls if she were angered enough.
"Tutliem, look at me."
He turned his head in her direction but still kept his eyes downcast.
"Very well. I want you to tell me word for word what your grandfather told you."
Tutliem picked at the fringes on the old table cloth. He shifted his legs beneath him and cleared his throat.
"Well, Grandpa said my father was what they called a simpleton and that if he got a paycheck and you asked him for it, he would give it to you, no questions asked."
Adlieme also picked at the fringes on the table cloth, untangling and fraying the edges as she listened.
"Grandpa said that people were always taking advantage of him." Tutliem began to cry. "Like they do to me, Mama."
"Grandpa said my father never had any money to offer you because he always gave it away. He said that the smartest thing my father ever did was pack up and leave when I was born."
When Tutliem finished speaking, his tears had soaked the bright orange table cloth. The puddles created mismatched offshoots that had splattered into his upturned palm. Adlieme watched as he swirled and dried the tears with his fingers. She thought to say something but knew better. Tutliem was generous with the time he took between words, and she knew that he had not told the thing that was most upsetting for him to say, so she continued watching him and waited.
"Mama," he said, turning his eyes upward to look into hers.
" I just don't want to be named after a fool. It's bad enough that you and Grandpa think I look and act just like him. It's far worse that I was named for him and that the legacy of his name means that I am now an idiot. It's all too much, Mama. I just can't understand why you would do this to me for the rest of my life."
There it was, Adlieme thought, and with that, she allowed herself to finally get angry. She wanted to rush from the table and march the two miles to where her father lived. She pictured herself bursting into his house and screaming until fire leaped from her tongue and burnt him and his home to ashes. She imagined that this lashing would turn back the hands of time and send her father away on the same boat her mother boarded years before. She wished things that she would never allow herself to say aloud. She wished that Tutliem's life was without her father's antagonistic interference. She wished her father saw and knew what she knew. When she had allowed herself that thought and had exhausted her imagination, she took a deep breath, forgave herself, and opened her eyes.
Adlieme allowed her rage to quell. She closed her eyes and listened to the ocean lapping at the wall outside the window. She studied Tutliem's face, the gentle curl of his nose to the full plump of his lips.
"Tutliem, look at me," she said. Still, he kept his eyes averted.
She bristled but allowed herself to speak anyway.
"Your father was my best friend. He was the kindest and most generous soul I have ever met until you came along." At this, Tutliem raised his eyes and met hers. "Your grandfather was right. Your father was not a rich man when it came to money in his pocket, but money was never his currency Tutliem, love was. And he never hesitated to give it away to anyone who asked, and mostly, he would give it, especially when they did not."
As Adlieme spoke, she watched as Tutliem relaxed his jaw and sat more erect. "No one would suffer or want of anything when your father was around, Tutliem. He was as generous with his money as you are with yours. Before he sold his little car, we would drive it around town, and if he saw someone walking, he would pull over and offer them a ride. He made many friends that way. He was this way always, and always he was beautiful. I would plead with him that this was no way for him to live, but he always told me that money would always come, never to worry. And you know what, Tutliem, he was right. Whenever it seemed like he was down on his luck, someone would return his favor, or he would find money, or something would happen where he would be better off than when he started. Watching him was like a miracle, and for that, your grandfather hated him. He said your father was not practical and lived too much in the clouds. He thought that I was too good for your father, and he would say the most awful things about him whether or not he was provoked."
She had forgotten how much her son loved to hear tales of his father. She watched as his demeanor shifted and swelled.
"Tutliem, when I became pregnant, your father was even more elated than I. He wanted to give you the world. Our province did not have the best to offer young men at the time. So, he did what all young men were doing then; he got on Balu's big fishing boat and left for Alaska. He did that so that he could send home his paycheck for us to live. It was his money that built this house where you have grown, his salary that bought me my first car to drive you around, and his paycheck that was saved to pay for your first year at school.
You see, Tutliem, when I named you, I gave you the most honorable name I could find. I wanted your father's legacy to live on through you, and I could not be more proud of your likeness to him." Her own tears fell heavily from her eyes. "Your father was no fool, Tutliem, and neither are you. I know you only knew him for a very short while before he was taken away from us, but I hope you can find him in your memory."
Adlieme recalled how greatly her little son had grieved when his father had not returned on the boat with the other men. She recalled nights holding his small frame as he asked again and again if he could see his Papa one last time. Fighting back her own tears, Adlieme would save her sorrow for when the child was away at school. She would scream and let her grief shake her body for hours before gathering herself for Tutliem's return.
Sitting across from that boy now, she studied his strong jawline and the tight curls atop his crown. He was remarkably her husband, even in the way he held himself in his chair.
Wiping his eyes, Tutliem stood and sauntered over to where she sat, bent down, and pecked her on the cheek. "I'm sorry, Mama" was all he said before straightening and walking out of the room.
Adlieme glanced over at the calendar hanging on the refrigerator. It would be the anniversary of her husband's death in two days. She wiped the tears that had gathered in the folds of her eyes and brushed the remnants of lunch's crumbs from the table.