Writers are by definition concerned with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week we’ll ask a different writer five questions on the subject.

Steve Almond is our guest this week. He’s the author of ten books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently God Bless America and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.

Unlike the other Mexican families on my grandma’s block, ours didn’t bother trying to keep family drama under wraps. What was the point? Of my father’s four brothers, three were lifelong convicts and gang members. When a neighbor’s television was stolen, they’d come knocking on grandma’s door. When a row of plants was torn out of the DeLeon’s garden, one of my uncles was to blame. Missing car radio? Vinnie. Misplaced checkbook? Phillip. Get your bank robbed? That would be Gilbert. Cop cars would just park in front of my grandparents’ house and wait. And every time one of her sons got busted (even if it was her who called the police) grandma would holler and whine from the kitchen window about her poor baby as he ducked into the back of the squad car.

Much like in prison, no one at my grandparents’ house ever used each others’ actual birth names.  Grandma was “Guera” (Spanish slang  for “pale.”) Grandpa was, simply, Asshole. The origins of a nickname were uncomfortably brutal, as nothing about you or who you were related to or what happened to you when you were five or what disease you had was off limits. Some names of friends and family members included: Chemo Joe, Donkey Tits, Horse Lips, Ham Nose, Becky The Flass (“Flat” + “Ass”) Potato Face, Mountain Neck, Stop Sign Ears, N*gger Mike, Whore-a (rhymes with “Dora”) and Jell-O Mouse. There wasn’t a need to break down the reasoning behind my nickname, of course, because it essentially spoke for itself: Oblong Doggy Head.

Every time my dad and his girlfriend talked about my mom in front of me and my brother, they used the nickname “Doodoo.” For years I had no clue who this Doodoo person was. I imagined her some wild lady dressed in a pile of battered animal hides, wrists bound by turquoise jewelry. So of course, I was extremely disappointed when I learned that The Legendary Doodoo was just my stupid mom. The day of revelations came the Friday afternoon of my weekend visit (the visitation order only allowed her to have one child at a time) when she pulled up in her galvanized El Camino―or, “The Devil-ElCo” as my dad would call it―pressing the gas pedal  with her obnoxious wooden high heel. As I was getting my clothes together, I overheard my dad tell his girlfriend, Better go hide in the bedroom, Doodoo’s here. Bingo.

My mom hated that my dad had a girlfriend, even though she wanted nothing to do with him. It didn’t matter to her that he had won full custody of us in The Bitterest (And Most Bizarre) Custody battle of 1979. It didn’t matter to her that she was never invited to school recitals or birthday parties or parent/teacher conferences.  It didn’t matter to her that we never saw her on actual holidays, never gave her Mother’s Day cards, never called her on the phone…What mattered to her was that she might lose her title – we might call some other woman “mom,” the true kiss of death for anyone with a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The first part of visitation was always the same: a nerve wracking twenty-five minute cross-examination as we blazed down the 405 freeway: Does that bitch sleep over? What does she wear around the house? Was that her peeking out of the window? Where does she work? What do you call her? Have you seen her naked? You know she’s a whore, right? Does she kiss your dad in front of you? Why does she wear so much eyeshadow? Do you think she’s prettier than me? Doesn’t she have her own children? What does she make you for dinner?

I don’t know why she bothered asking me these things. It was a well-known fact my mother never wanted me. When you were born, I was so angry. The doctor had promised me you’d be a boy. Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted a son. Shit, she placed me in a foster home when I was four, but kept my little brother for nine whole months before she decided to toss him in, too. Which is why, when she picked me up one fateful weekend, and made me hide beneath a pile of dirty laundry in the backseat while she went on a date (dinner! A movie! The whole goddamn nine!) I couldn’t help but ready my mouth with the worst truth vomit I could muster. Hours later, when she opened the car door to see if I was still breathing, I popped up and blurted, Dad and my new mom call you Doodoo! And grandma told me about the baby buried in the backyard. And even Peter calls you Doodoo! (The part about my brother Peter was a lie, but we all knew how much she loved him more than me, so I thought I’d sprinkle a few extra grains of salt in there, free o’ charge.)

My mother didn’t say a word, which made her all the more frightening. She stared out into the darkness for ten years, her mouth a straight red line. Then she started the car and peeled out of the driveway, blasting her crazy Persian belly dance music to heighten my fear and confusion. I covered myself with the laundry and curled into a ball of holy-shit-goddamn-what-in-fuck’s-ass-have-I-done?

When I felt the car slow down to a roll, I looked up and saw that she’d flicked the headlights off and was easing the ElCo down the driveway of my apartment complex—I knew whatever was gonna happen, I was in deep shit by my dad when I came home. When the engine turned off, all I could think to do was duck. When I heard her get out, I sat up to see what she was doing. I wished I hadn’t. I remember this entire sequence without color or sound: She took the crowbar from the bed of the ElCo and smashed my dad’s bedroom window. Then I watched  her smear mud all over our front door and throw our welcome mat onto the neighbor’s roof. Just like that, I pissed all over the dirty laundry.

When we got to her apartment, she was unusually calm, which meant she was either plotting, or satisfied. Whatever it was, I knew I was screwed. If I made it out of this one alive, it meant a) my dad was hit by a bus or, b) God intended crueler things for me later in life. I waited for her to say something. I was hungry, but I knew better than to ask for dinner. After a few minutes of silence, she asked if I wanted some chocolate milk (one of the three things she knew how to “cook.”)  I nodded and hung around to watch her make it, half expecting her to poison me. She kicked off her Candies and grabbed two glasses from the sink, then motioned for me to stand beside her.

It was the closest thing to a hug she would ever give me. And as we stood in the kitchen together, for the first time in my eight long years of life, I actually felt like her daughter. As she held the bottle of syrup over the milk, she said, You know how to make the best chocolate milk? Squeeze the syrup into the milk for exactly seven seconds. It’s perfect, every time. For the rest of that weekend, she didn’t once make fun of my buck teeth or point out the inherited trail of fuzz down my back to her  roommate. 

When I came home, the incident was never brought up. No one in the family mentioned the word “Doodoo” written in mud on our front door, even though it stayed there for weeks. Because my life is my life, our neighbor, Welfare Tommy, blabbed about it and “Doodoo” became my nickname once school started. By the end of the semester, the rumor had turned into a tale of me shitting my pants in class. I did nothing to correct the story. I figured I had earned it.