During the warm, mean-spirited boredom of last period with a substitute teacher, Autumn’s life turned a little worse. The busywork was fished from where it had fallen under desks, sand dust and shoe prints were brushed off, and worksheets handed in with nothing written on them but names. Then the girls drew their desks into a circle and draped themselves more creatively in their chairs, and talked about feminine subjects. From wedding venues to wedding dresses to family planning to baby names — here, a rich aesthetic stopping point. Handsome strong names for their sons like Alexander — and then delicate names for their daughters like Eloise. No, said one girl. Not Eloise. She had a cousin named Eloise who was enormous. Eloise was a fat name.
The conversation got too frightening then and they reassured each other that they had beautiful names and not fat ones, but Autumn walked home that day with a knowledge or a suspicion of certain glances and certain smiles passed between certain girls in her friend group, and she carried home a new anxiety.
Was Autumn a fat name for a girl? It was undeniably vowelly, gutter sounds you really had to hold with your mouth. It had “tum” in it, which was damning. Even the look of the m and the n living next to each other, all the plump humps. Autumn’s unpracticed cursive signature had such a look of roundness, from the dopey oval of the A to the mn, which Autumn would sometimes write mm by mistake, a hump too many, gone overboard. Autumn sometimes did go overboard.
“April, May, and June are fat names for a girl,” said Autumn’s mother, in a tone of being tremendously imposed upon. “These are the fattest times of year, when things are growing and flowering. Flowers are fat names for girls. And fruits. Things that are juicy and pubescent. Autumn represents preparation for the abyss. Winnowing down. The look of a tree on the last day of autumn — I don’t think anyone could call that fat, do you?”
Autumn was surprised her mother could put together such a strong position. It made her think that Autumn was a fat name for a girl and always had been, and her mother had spent nine fattening months thinking of sound arguments for how it could be interpreted otherwise. She thought about the other things her mother’s stance had brought to mind: the gauntness of someone who loses weight because of illness, and the conversational move of offering that as a sardonic piece of consolation, once they’re out of the woods; the fact that she didn’t know of any girls’ names that were fruit.
Autumn’s family ate outdoors that evening. It was spring, almost summer, which meant that Autumn would soon be free to pursue her leisure. She didn’t know what that meant for her this year, between seventh and eighth grade; camp seemed unsightly, but she didn’t know what else to do. Autumn’s mother, whose name was Gillian, which had the aerobic sonic quality of climbing and then descending a hill, served orzo and French bread and fruit salad. Autumn glared through the citronella candlelight and its piercing little smell at her other family members. Simon, her father, and Sarah, her sister, both seemed complacent and privileged in the serpentine quality of their names, and Autumn looked away from them back to her food.
Bread was out of the question, of course, and orzo was just a tricky kind of pasta. Fruit salad had its own pitfalls, namely all the sugar, and Autumn would of course have preferred normal vegetable salad. But nestled into the fruit salad were blueberries, unassuming yet powerful in terms of their ability to fight free radicals—which sounded like a type of boy who had to wear jean jackets with hoodies underneath all winter because he refused both leather and wool—but were actually a sort of bad atom that made you rust like an old car with flaky holes in the metal. Autumn popped the plump purple pods into her mouth while her family began to graze.
Autumn’s mother took a single bite of the fruit salad and said it wasn’t right. She encouraged her husband to try it and he agreed. Sarah demanded to try it and Gillian swept the bowl up off the table out of her reach and went to the kitchen with it. “No, not right at all,” she said. “I think the fruit is spoiled.”
Autumn could only look at her plate and think that here was something else that ought to have concerned her but hadn’t. She felt she was a hopeless case, maybe. She could always change her name, she thought, down the line, after her parents were dead and wouldn’t be offended. She put another blueberry into her mouth to try to detect its problems. At least a billion undetectable tiny things also went in and through her like she wasn’t even there.
Maddy Raskulinecz lives in Baltimore, where she teaches writing at Johns Hopkins. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, 3:AM, Wigleaf, and elsewhere.