I can’t fly. I’m not very strong. No x-ray vision, even after Lasik surgery. Still, I have superpowers. Okay, just one superpower. I’m good with names. Always have been.
A few weeks before my fifth birthday (and my first day of school), Mom took me shopping for “big girl clothes.” Loaded down with bags of OshKosh ensembles and StrideRite shoes,Mom decided I deserved a rare treat: lunch at the food court. The aroma of cinnamon buns and pizza was intoxicating, but I chose a hot dog on a stick. The stick was free!
We sat down, and I started dunking my deep-fried dog in ketchup before each bite. When Mom handed me a napkin, I glanced up and saw a man slide her purse off the back of her chair, slip it into his jacket, and keep walking.
“HEY!” I bellowed. “THAT’S NOT YOURS!” At four-and-eleventh-twelfths years old, I had the lungs of a drill sergeant. He disappeared into the crowd. Someone alerted mall security and they called the cops, so we ended our day filling out a police report in a tiny office. Even worse, I lost my free stick. Mom didn’t get a look at the thief, but witnesses said he was young, white, medium build, and about 5′ 8″ tall. So…almost anyone.
“His name is Jeffrey Arnold Moscarino,” I volunteered.
“You know him?” asked Officer Wilson.
“I know his name,” I said.
“You know this Moscarino?” he asked Mom. “Neighbor kid? Baby-sitter’s boyfriend?”
She shook her head and said she’d ask my dad. Luckily, Mom kept her keys in her pocket so we could get home.
The police ran Moscarino’s name and found his address. Officer Wilson called to say they arrested him and recovered Mom’s purse. She hung up and asked how I knew his name.
“I know everybody’s name.” I pointed out the window at the postal carrier approaching our house. “Jin Salvatore Yang.” My mother paused for a moment, then dashed outside. After a brief, animated conversation, she returned with this fact: Mr. Yang had been born in an ambulance with the help of a paramedic named Salvatore Giordano.
Then I recited the complete names of everyone on our block, including people I had only seen from a distance. That night, my parents explained that knowing names is different than knowing colors or letters. Dad asked me if I could keep my “gift” secret.
“Just so no one feels bad because they aren’t good with names like you,” he said.
So I didn’t mention that my kindergarten teacher’s first name was Sunshine but we were told to call her Miss Susan.
And I kept my mouth shut when I came home from middle school and spotted our new neighbor: a tall, full-figured woman named Richard Brian Weber. Hiding my gift was easy. Kids want to fit in, not stand out.
Like all superpowers, mine has limits. I have to see a person, face to face. So when Mom and I watched “Overboard” for the hundredth time, I had to Google “Goldie Hawn” to discover she was really Goldie Jean Studlendgehawn. Studlendgehawn?
By the time I was 17, the only other person who knew about my gift was Uncle Tim. Mom’s brother was a priest at a church an hour south of Memphis. My secret was safe.
We hadn’t seen Uncle Tim in a few years, so my folks decided to squeeze in a family vacation between my high school graduation and the start of my summer job. That’s why I was at Tennessee’s Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park instead of Malibu that June.
But before Uncle Tim could hang with us, “Father Timothy” had to escort 58 students back to his parish after their week at Bible camp. The kids were about my age, so I grabbed a seat on the bus and became fast friends with a girl named Bernie (Bernadette Philomena Fitzgerald, to be exact).
We were more than halfway to Uncle Tim’s church when our driver spotted a vintage Cadillac on the shoulder, steam pouring from its engine. As our driver parked the bus, I saw a handsome man with a shock of white hair near the car. He was punching numbers into a cell phone.
“JESUS CHRIST!” I shouted. Uncle Tim inhaled sharply and started praying in Latin. I grabbed his arm.
“No,” I said. “That’s not the Son of God, it’s the Man from Memphis. That’s Elvis Aaron Presley.” Uncle Tim shot out of his seat and ran toward the front of the bus.
I don’t know if was the conviction in my voice or Uncle Tim’s reaction, but those happy campers turned into crazed paparazzi. In seconds, dozens of cell phones were taking pictures. In minutes, photos started appearing on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and in emails.
I made my way to the front of the bus, but Uncle Tim told the driver to keep the doors closed. It didn’t matter. Kids were hanging out the windows, shouting requests.
I could not take my eyes off the King as he gazed down the road, unaffected by the chaos around him.
Two black SUVs pulled up behind the Caddy. A young man leaped out and opened the back door. Mr. Presley paused before getting in. He looked right at me and he curled his lip, just a little. The nun next to me fainted. The SUVs roared away.
The Elvis sighting dominated the news for a few days, then became just another entry on urban legend websites.
I started Art Center that fall and ended up working my way through college by putting names to faces for the FBI, TSA, NSA, CIA, and, during one summer in London, MI-6.
I married a wonderful man and we have a daughter who’s almost five. She recently showed me something that makes my skill with names look like a parlor trick. She knows her gift is our little secret…for now.
© Copyright 2010 Paula Johnson. All rights reserved.