I was trying to get rid of a name, a childhood nickname. I had moved from Indiana to start a new job in Georgia, and I was making certain I’d not inadvertently brought it with me from North to South. I methodically went through my mental checklist: jettison the e-mail address that contains the offensive Hoosier-handle (check); urge brothers and sisters to telephone me only at home (check); discard any and all gag gifts, birthday cards, desktop mementos and key chains bearing the dreaded appellation. I also sorted through all the books, journal articles and files I planned to take to my new job and purged every sticky note and fax cover sheet that harbored the moniker, whether in cursive or typescript. When I stood up from the floor and surveyed the boxes all ready to be carried to the car for my first day, I was satisfied that I’d left it safely back in Indiana, maybe resting in the green hummocks of a fine pasture or hiding in a field of ten-foot-high tasseling corn.
I’ve had the nickname for 25 years, since I was 7 years old and living near Wabash, Indiana, the first electrically lighted city in the world, where I grew up stocky and chunky on a farm. Knocking on the front door for my first stay-over at a schoolmate’s house in town, I was greeted by his father, a man who, uncomprehendingly to me, made his living by simply going to work in an office rather than raising livestock and plowing. He smiled broadly and bent down face to face with me. He rubbed my head and said, “You’re the cutest little cow pie I’ve ever seen.” He said it with affection, not a trace of mockery. The name followed me from grade school into junior high, right through graduation and into my university days; it may have well suited a person who’d spent all of his life in Indiana, but when I decided to move to Georgia, I desperately wanted the name to remain Hoosier-bound.
It was a beautiful spring day in Smyrna, Georgia, full of blooming Bradford pears and dogwood and other trees and shrubs that I couldn’t name, blasting with the fulgurant petals of May. It had been six weeks since I started the job and all seemed secure on the Cow Pie front. No e-mails had slipped through, I had received no faxes or letters with the offensive name and none of my family members—though they’d phoned me at my apartment frequently to say, “Howdy Cow Pie!”—had called me at the office. I was beginning to breathe easy.
I am not a great softball player, but I like the sport, the way the fat ball thuds if you connect just right, or the smell of the sand (in Georgia it’s red marl) whipping up as you try your best to get your abundant body to round the bases at an unembarrassing clip. So I had joined the office team. The afternoon of our first game, I’d dressed quickly, throwing on my old Indiana jersey and lacing up my spikes enthusiastically. When I got to the ballpark, my new co-workers all seemed pleased to see me, waving and smiling as I crossed the grass to warm up. Some were even grinning.Then, from the dugout, I heard a voice, the same voice, now amplified, that often announced I had a phone call on line one: “Out in left field today we have...