My twelve-year old nephew Leo is a genius. At least that’s what my sister, his mother, keeps telling me.
He is not one of those annoying prodigies that debuted at age five as a head-bobbing solo violinist with the New York Philharmonic. He also is not a math „wizard,“ who dazzles my sister’s dinner-party guests by asking them to call out any two sets of multi-digit numbers and he will multiple them in his head „faster than you can do it on a calculator.“
In fact, he fits none of the genius stereotypes with which we are all familiar through talk shows, the Guinness book of records, or from movies about children that master chess to the bafflement of their parents, who have to transport him or her to various city parks so they can compete with bearded, ponytailed, social outcasts that slap a clock on its head each time a pawn is moved.
Leo learned from a magazine he read that most movie stars and some celebrities replace their real names, the one they grew up with, the one appearing on their birth certificate, with „stage names,“ ones that rhyme or are alliterative or sound „neat.“ And Leo is strongly opposed to such a practice.
„I don’t get it,“ he told his mom. „What do you mean Ringo Starr’s real name is Richard Starkey. A person’s name is their name, forever. It should never be changed. The name on your birth certificate should be the same name they put on your tombstone, period.“
But after Leo found out about the name changing, he changed something about himself…his personality. The first stage of the new Leo was no more than his being smart-alecky.
„I understand you are a big fan of Stevland Morris,“ he said to his older brother Tom.
„Never heard of the jerk,“ Tom replied before stuffing almost a whole slice of deep-dish pizza into his mouth. „What team does he play for?“
„He doesn’t play for any team, fatso. He goes by the name of Stevie Wonder in case you might be interested.“
„Bullshit, Leo. Stevie Wonder is Stevie Wonder. And the other guy you mentioned…probably doesn’t even exist.“
Leo’s other uncle, my brother Mark, is a movie buff. He went to Leo’s house to visit his mom one Sunday and while they were having a beer in the kitchen, Leo asked him, „Uncle Mark, was Marion Morrison really as tough as he appears in old movies or did Hollywood stuff him full of steroids to bulk him up and have him wear elevator cowboy boots to make him look taller?“
Uncle Mark, obviously misunderstanding the question, looked at Leo’s mom and said, „Don’t know much about today’s movie stars, Leo the lionhearted, but whomever you’re talking about is probably full of phoney biceps and stands on a telephone book when he kisses his leading lady.“
„Marion Morrison,“ Leo replied with a smile, stealing a sip from my brother’s beer, „is none other than the mighty John Wayne himself, and his most frequent leading lady was, who else, Maureen Fitzsimmons, who changed her last name to O’Hara for some reason or other…Fitzsimmons is a superior name, I think.“
And, of course, he attacked his classmates and teachers the same way. He told Ms. Richardson, who taught math at Bradley Middle School, that „Bullets Over Broadway“ was one of the best flicks Allen Konigsberg ever wrote and directed. „My uncle Mark says it should have won the Academy Award, and he really knows what he’s talking about.“
„Am I missing something, Mr. Blair. „Bullets Over Broadway“ is a Woody Allen flick, as you call it. Your uncle better play closer attention to detail. Allen Konigsberg, indeed.“
Leo laughed and told her he „had some bad news for you.“ He went on to „shock her,“ by saying that „apparently real names are not real enough for people that become movie stars so they hide behind the cutesy stuff. Some poet or some cabbie with a sense of humour thinks up these phoney names, according to a magazine article I read, and the next thing you know a guy known in his neighbourhood as Anthony Benedetto stands up in front of a million people with a microphone in his hand and tells everybody with a straight face that he is…Tony Bennett.“
He looked at his teacher. „It isn’t right, Ms. Richardson. Who do these people think they are anyway? A person can’t change their name just to make their name sound better. I mean, if Adolf Hitler had a daughter and she was going to go to Bradley, naturally she should change her name so somebody wouldn’t kill her. But you tell me, Ms. Richardson, what’s wrong with the name Jacob Cohen that Jacob had it changed to Rodney Dangerfield.“
Leo’s fellow students were both furious with him and jealous of him. He knew hundreds of „real names“ and he used them all the time. The one that nearly got him beat up was when he informed a half-dozen friends that Roy Rogers, the place where they and their families eat at least once a week, was named after an old cowboy movie star named Roy Rogers whose real name was Leonard Slye.
Instead of telling Leo to cut out the brattiness and stop referring to Roy’s as Leonard’s, my sister added to the problem by telling all her friends over the phone, the clerks at the supermarket, and during her frequent lunches with the three former college classmates that still lived nearby, and with whom she exercised regularly, that „my son Leo is a genius and most certainly will win a scholarship to Yale or Harvard.“
I personally think Evelyn’s failure to speak honestly with Leo and to tell him to cut the name nonsense off before it becomes unbearable and makes this nice kid a clown is due to her demanding role of „single parent,“ which she has bungled from the day her husband Dave quietly packed up and left in the middle of the night.
„He needs a father,“ she said when I mentioned to her that it was boorish to sit in her living room, listening to a lanky twelve-year old, who can throw a curve ball that breaks three feet, who can make a basketball spin on the tip of his finger for three minutes, and who gets real good grades in school, announce to the rest of the family that Reginald Dwight wrote the score for The Lion King, and then stand there and wait for the opportunity to tell everyone that Reginald Dwight is Elton John’s real name.
„Look…what with kids these days taking drugs and dealing drugs and carrying pistols to school, why am I supposed to come down on my son’s harmless hobby of memorising a bunch of names. Besides, I think it’s educational. I learn something from him every day. And besides that…Leo is a genius.“
However, when Mrs. McMahan, who teaches English at Bradley, called Leo into her office to tell him she could not find his paper on the subject she had assigned: WHY IS THE FISH POPULATION IN THE WORLD’S OCEANS DWINDLING, the second phase of the new Leo kicked in.
„That’s my paper right there, Mrs. McMahan,“ he said, pointing to a folder on her desk. „I changed my name to Rocky Road. It sounds a lot neater than Leo Blair. Don’t you agree?“
And it didn’t stop there. He signed up to try out for the basketball team at Bradley under the name Selim Brogiluskivich, which coach Dwyer couldn’t even pronounce. When he found out it was Leo Blair „trying to be funny,“ he made Leo run twenty laps around the gym, repeating his real name every time his left Reebok hit the floor.
My sister had a talk with him when she learned from the mom of one of Leo’s buddies about the Brogiluskivich affair. „Leo, my angel, enough is getting to be enough,“ she said, clasping her hands together to visually bolster her verbal chiding. „People don’t change their name just by erasing one name and writing-in another. It is a legal thing. Uncle Mark says it costs money and a judge has to approve it. Another thing…movie stars don’t live in a real world, and you do. They make a living pretending to be somebody else. Half the time they don’t even know who they are, but you do. You are Leo Blair, my wonderful son, period. I beg you to stop this name thing right now. Put your genius to work doing something else. Master computers and excel at basketball. Uncle Mark says basketball players make millions these days. When your playing days are over, maybe you can become another Bill Gates, and I’ll bet you…a pepperoni pizza that Bill Gates is Bill Gates.“
The talk from mom did some good, for awhile anyway. Leo gave up telling people that Susan Sarandon was born Susan Tomaling and he did indeed become a starter on the school basketball team. Only once during practice he could not resist shouting out when one of his teammates tried a „sky hook“ that Kareem Abdul-Jabar was really a guy named Lou Alcindor. And Leo was bringing home excellent grades which reinforced my sister’s belief that he was a genius.
One evening while Leo was working on a paper in his room and Tom, a senior at Monroe High, was working on his PC, the telephone rang.
Evelyn answered, but both boys came out of the room to see if the call was for them.
„I’m sorry,“ Evelyn said, „You have the wrong number. There is nobody here by that name.“
„Who was it, mom,“ they both yelled from the hall.
„A young lady asking for someone named Caleb Bouche. I told her she had the wrong number.“
Tom shrugged his shoulders and went back to his room. Leo stood in the hall for a few minutes, trying to decide whether to tell his mom that a new girl student had started at Bradley last week and she had come to basketball practice yesterday.
„My name is Shirley. What’s yours,“ she had asked Leo.
„Caleb Bouche,“ was Leo’s smiling response.
Leo returned to his room not mentioning anything to his mom, but fearing the phone would ring again in a minute. It did not.
Evelyn told me a few months later that she just might have two geniuses living under one roof. „Tom is on the honour roll and Leo is not only team captain, but he may skip a grade his grades are so high.“
She also told me Leo’s thirteenth birthday was coming up and she intended to make a big deal out of it since he was „stepping into the dangerous waters of adolescence.“ She invited me to come for ice cream and cake, and, of course, I did. It was a Wednesday and that morning, during science class, Leo raised his hand and asked to be excused. Evelyn lived only two blocks from the school. Leo left the building and ran home. He opened the front door and there it was on the floor. The large brown envelope he had been waiting for. He grabbed it, ran upstairs, hid the envelope under his mattress, then ran back to school.
I learned about all this from Leo after the party which was attended by his mom, his brother Tom, his uncle Mark, me, and a darling young lady named Shirley from Leo’s school.
Evelyn had a chocolate cake with thirteen lit candles on it sitting in the middle of the table, and everyone had a big dish of Neapolitan ice cream placed in front of them. There were five or six wrapped boxes at one end of the table, including one from me…a white shirt and a blue tie with little brown embroidered basketballs appearing here and there. Leo had told me a few days before that he was going to go to a school dance in a couple weeks and wanted to wear a white shirt because he was sure no one else would be wearing one. What a kid, I thought to myself, what a great kid.
„Let’s sing, Happy Birthday,“ his mom said, holding up a paper cup filled with ginger ale. „Ready…hap-pea…“
„Wait, mom…wait,“ Leo said, and he pulled out from under the cushion on his chair a large envelope, holding it up for all to see. „I’ve got something to show everybody.“
He slid a grey certificate from the envelope and read from it: „Some of the words are in Spanish,: he warned, „but get this…THIS DOCUMENT CERTIFIES THAT LEO JOHN BLAIR OF THE ADDRESS BELOW WILL AS OF THIS DATE BE KNOWN AS OWEN OLIVER FOR ALL MATTERS LEGAL, PERSONAL AND SOCIAL.“
He passed the certificate to his uncle Mark. „You were right, Uncle Mark…it cost me ten bucks to change my name. But I’ve done it and it feels great. Owen Oliver will look good on my diploma when I graduate Bradley and head for high school. What a cool name…two first names, in fact…Owen and Oliver.“
The certificate was handed from Mark to Tom to Shirley to Evelyn to me and then back to Leo who laid it carefully in front of him on the table. Evelyn was horrified for a moment, but after everybody had seen the certificate, she smiled warmly, and walked over to Leo. She kissed him on top of his blond hair and then kissed him on his warm cheek. Then she went over to Tom and did the same thing to him…her first-born child.
I must say I have never seen my sister more motherly, more self-assured, nor as absolutely happy as she was at that moment. Her eyes were filled with tears which she dabbed with a birthday napkin.
„Okay…,“ she said beaming at her new teenager, and raising her paper cup of ginger ale, „everybody sing…HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU…HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU…HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR OWEN OLIVER,…HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU…“
That was two months ago. I talked to my brother Mark yesterday and he told me Evelyn said Leo has the certificate nailed to his bedroom wall, but that he has never ever mentioned the name Owen Oliver since the day of his thirteenth-birthday party. And he has discontinued calling Boy George, George Allan O’Dowd; Nicholas Cage, Nicholas Coppola; and Cher, Cherilyn Sarkisian…