Dispatches | March 18, 2004

[By Amy Wilkinson]

I’m terrible at remembering names. All names. Like the names of people I’ve met (one or even five times) or the names of authors, stories, articles I’ve read. I’m the person who says, “I saw this great movie last weekend. There was a taxi driver/bellhop who couldn’t sleep and a woman from some country, I forget the name, who was in danger of being sent back….” And though I might get my message across eventually, describing things my way takes so many more words than if I had names readily available.

I envy people with large name-vocabularies. I’m convinced I simply don’t have name storage space in my memory, because I’ve tried to learn names. For example I like nature (though I tend to look at it from indoors) and I’d like to know the names of things in nature, like the birds that flock to the birdfeeder suction-cupped to my office window. I bought a bird guidebook, which I keep on the table in my office, always within grasping distance, and I look birds up. Like the yellow-bellied, tan-winged one that has a black head and neck and streaks of white for cheeks. It’s common, the book tells me; easily recognizable. The “Black-capped Chickadee.” An entry I’ve thumbed to six, seven times. That I thumbed to again, in order to write this.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that I have no memory. When I get to the page with the Black-capped Chickadee entry I don’t need to read about the bird because I remember that its name came from the sound it makes, “chick-a-dee-dee,” one of the most complex vocalizations in the animal kingdom. I just need to see the first three words in the entry: the bigger, bolder words: the name. Because the way my memory works is I lose names but I hold onto details.

As a fiction reader for The Missouri Review, I get the pleasure of considering twenty manuscripts a week. And though most of them have not been published in the journal, they’ve all left impressions. I often find myself in conversations with friends saying, “Wait, I heard something about this. Oh, I know. It was a story I read about a woman watching someone’s house and then trouncing around in the owner’s underwear.” The name of the author, the story, I couldn’t begin to guess. But the details are with me. There was an industrial, steel refrigerator; the homeowners had a subscription to the large-text Reader’s Digest. And then of course there was the underwear, a detail that comes in handy when friends are considering leaving their home in someone’s care.