Herc thought he had the perfect life: a great partner and a meaningful career as a psychotherapist—until his partner left him a week ago and Herc became too depressed to see his clients. When a random meteorite punched a tidy hole in his car’s engine, it seemed like the world had it in for him, but bumping into Pyotr, the handsome older man who’s moved in a couple of doors down and happens to study things like falling stars, things might be looking up for Herc—and more may be falling than the skies in this light-hearted, apocalyptic romance.
Guest Post – Oh, for Namesake!
In high school, I remember learning how James Joyce named his protagonist in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man “Stephen Dedalus,” after the mythological hero Daedalus—a brilliant inventor who created wings to escape a labyrinth with his son, Icarus, who didn’t fare as well as his father because he flew too close to the sun and melted his wings, leading him to fall to his death. Joyce’s previous choice for a surname had been “Hero.”
This had a huge influence on me, as I had been asked since I could answer about my real name by people who assumed that my name in English was some pseudonym (trust me, it isn’t and it’s on my birth certificate), and that I had a Chinese name full of deep meaning compared to their names which they believed had long become devoid of any meaning. Even if “Christopher” meant “Christ-Bearer,” my Western friends were more likely to have been given the name because their parents liked it, or maybe a relative had it (so it had sentimental but not etymological meaning).
It seems funny that their fascination with my Chinese name (which is Romanized and used as my middle name) probably made a few of them decide to tattoo their bodies with Chinese characters in some grammatically incorrect way in their adulthood, because it had more meaning than the English word for “peace.” Or it looked cooler (I think the word is actually exotic.)
Anyway, my point is that, after having been asked what my name(s) meant, or why I was given my English name, it was refreshing to see someone like James Joyce of the Western canon pay attention to the importance of names in his stories, and the act of naming as a novelist.
When I wrote my latest book, Herc & Pyotr, I picked names that would resonate with fans of disaster movies, as the story took place within MLR Press’s Storming Love series of disaster romances.
Knowing that I’d have to write about meteors made my mind jump immediately to that lovely piece of cinema known as Meteor (released in 1979 and a co-production of American International Pictures and the legendary Shaw Brothers of Hong Kong)—the two missile systems used to destroy the eponymous meteor were called Hercules (United States) and Peter the Great (USSR). Incidentally, the movie was inspired by research at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) about meteors hitting Earth called “Project Icarus,” because asteroids and such can be pulled into the sun’s orbit, and on their way down, crash into planets like ours. Even scientists have a flare for mythological nomenclature.
In my story, I did go with the Russian spelling of Pyotr in English (did that make sense?), and shortened Hercules’ name, which I think makes it more fun for readers who enjoy discovering “Easter eggs” or hidden references in a story (and there are plenty in my work). See if you catch the nod to U2’s song, “Until the End of the World,” from Wim Wenders’s film, Until the End of the World.
The other notable appellation in Herc & Pyotr is Nestori. It’s the Finnish version of “Nestor,” who was one of Hercules’ best friends. With Nestori named, and the inclusion of a Russian-American character, it wasn’t long before I decided on the cultural context for my story, and after much research and interviewing, I learned a lot about Finnish, Swedish, and Russian culture, especially how they adapted to being in the States.
Names have magic, and so does the act of naming. When I write, I never take lightly what I and my readers will call the characters, because I want the experience of my stories to be encompassing and meaningful, from the punctuation on the page to the name of each person.
I had a writing teacher once accuse me of being a puzzle-maker like Joyce and not like her hero and master of minimalism, Raymond Carver, who was straightforward. I’d like to think that my stories work on different levels, and of myself as a wrapper of gifts rather than a creator of mazes. However, even if I were to create mazes, riddles, and puzzles—I seem to remember those things as being fun.
And “Raymond” means “King of the World.” Add that to “Carver” and you have a really interesting name!
I took care of my car.
Regular maintenance, oil changes, carwashes–the works. I figured I’d sell it one day, and I didn’t want it to have a scratch or a sticker to drop its value, let alone anything wrong mechanically. Everything worked on it–the power windows, radio, CD player…until today.
“Great,” I said, staring at the fist-sized hole in the hood. I clicked my key fob and turned off the alarm. A few of the neighbors came out and turned off their car alarms, too, that had been set off by the very loud boom that shook all of our windows early this spring morning.
“Jeez, Herc, what happened?” Nestori, my friend and neighbor down the way, stood there with his blond bed head, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He wore a rumpled white tee, sweatpants, and socks–we were dressed alike except I had slippers. Maybe I appeared as lost as he did. Or worse, since I hadn’t changed my clothes since the beginning of the week.
“I don’t know.” I gawked at the smoking hole. “Lightning?” I pieced together the evidence I had, and only came up with a timeline that started with a crash, followed by my car alarm, then a couple of minutes later the aforementioned boom, and finally the other cars being triggered. “A frozen turd from an airplane?”
“Are you serious? Holy shit.”
“What?” His golden eyebrows crinkled together, and then he grinned. “Oh.”
“To be fair, it did fall from the sky.” Everybody huddled closer to peer into the puncture. “I don’t know. I don’t even know who I should call about this.”
“What about Jason?”
Nestori’s innocent question should’ve felt like a sucker punch, but the numbness from seeing my killed car protected me. “He left last week. We’re not together anymore.”
“Bro. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Because you would’ve wanted to get me drunk and laid.
“I would’ve totally come over with a bottle of Jack and helped you get some D, man.”
“So that’s why I haven’t seen him jogging for a while.” Pihla, the widow who lived across the street, had the perkiest personality–and breasts–in our neighborhood. “I thought he left on a business trip.” She wore a pink satin robe over a pink nightie with matching pink slippers. A small, thin, gold cross on a gold chain stuck out sideways from her cleavage and wobbled back and forth, unable to rest flat. Her son, Sami, clung to her leg, his head just above her knee, avoiding eye contact like some toddlers do. This suburban Madonna in pink held a mug of expensive coffee I could smell and envy from where I stood, and rested her French manicured hand on her shy boy’s head. By the way she had batted her eyes at Jason during block parties, or how she happened to pick up the morning paper from her driveway when he’d jog past, I always thought she had a crush on my partner.
Ex. I meant ex-partner.
“Yeah, he didn’t leave on a business trip. He just left me.” I wondered if I died inside my home from choking on a chicken bone while eating, single and alone, how long it would take for my neighbors to notice my dead, bachelor body. I thought I smelled something funny, one would say a week later. Jeez, what happened? another would ask. Who the hell cares? my ghost would spell out on a Ouija board, life sucks.
“Meteorite,” said a faintly accented voice from the crowd. Slavic, I would guess.
“Whoa! You think a meteor hit Herc’s car?” Nestori asked. “How do you know?”
“Meteorite,” the voice gently corrected. “It’s a meteorite when it lands. I saw everything as I was jogging this morning.”
“Meteorite,” I mumbled. My geek brain fetched a personal wiki page from when I wrote a report in sixth grade about asteroids crashing into Earth and destroying all life, because I’ve always been a cheery person. The word “disaster” comes from the Italian disastro, meaning “ill-starred event.”
Why couldn’t it have been a pretty shooting star that vaporized all sparkly in the atmosphere, so I could make a wish? Instead, it’d dropped a deuce on my perfectly maintained car.
The hole in the hood gaped back at me, and I thought about the day Jason left. He had requested I park on the street instead of in the garage, so he’d be able to get his things out of the house without too much trouble.
I should make a wish anyway.
Something realistic, not like true love and a happy-ever-after ending with a handsome, emotionally intelligent man, because that obviously doesn’t happen. How about a nice pair of shoes? Good shoes are more reliable than men.
“I’m sorry this happened,” the voice said, this time to my left. “There have been worldwide reports of meteor strikes over the past few weeks.”
I turned and came eye to eye with the concerned face of a middle-aged man only slightly taller than me. He wore a red baseball cap and his black hair, lined with a few strands of gray, escaped his hat around his ears and a little over his forehead. His color-coordinated stubble, speckled with silver, defined a square jaw and framed full lips. Perspiration darkened his loose, gray shirt, forming something like a Rorschach inkblot in the center of his defined chest. Despite the smell of engine oil and gasoline coming from my mortally wounded car, the scent of his clean sweat cut through and woke me from my daze.
“Hi, I’m Pyotr. I moved here last week.” He offered me a firm handshake and a smile, and returned to surveying the damage to my car, his hands on his hips. “You should probably call your insurance and not your ex. I work from home a few days a week, so if you need a ride, let me know? I live down the street.” He started running lightly in place. His feet were bare, which I hadn’t noticed.
“Thanks for the offer…Pee-yo-ter. I may take you up on it.”
“Please do.” Pyotr smiled again, nodded a succinct farewell, and trotted off.
“Yeah, if you need a ride…” Nestori and a few neighbors offered, but I didn’t pay attention.
I was busy making an unrealistic wish. And it wasn’t for shoes.
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About the Author
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character, in case you were wondering.
Website: http://AtomYang.com (Facebook author page)