“Horrible at Names” by Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali


I used to say I was horrible at names when I first met people
until I realized I was actually just asking for forgiveness 
in advance for not even attempting to remember. Ever. 
I’d say, I’m sorry, but I’m horrible at names, as I shook each hand 
and looked each new person in the eye, but inside I’d be thinking, 
Now that I’ve warned you, I don’t even actually have to try.

I have since made myself good at names, better than I used to be.
No actually, I suspect I may now be better than most people
at remembering names. But only because I suspect most people 
have never looked at the list of their life’s priorities and simply 
promised to elevate Remembering the Names of Other People 
a few places higher than wherever it has been languishing. 

God, what a difference it makes in how a person feels
when you do them the simple honor of remembering their name.

My new motto became I will thank the bartender by name, Frances, 
every time I tip her. Until the day Frances, the regular bartender 
at my local dive, said Don’t get me wrong. I love Frances, 
but in what universe do I look anything like her? 

Nothing has ever made me feel older or more out of touch 
with my world than realizing that the most important thing 
about Frances to me was apparently where I expected her to be.

And I knew that was just plain wrong.
So I tipped her. Mallory. That was her name. 
I gave Mallory a good tip.

This morning at my local breakfast joint, I ask my waiter, 
who is awesome, if his name is Delroy. Because it’s either that
or it’s Elroy. I am not confused between the two names, no. 
Rather, there are actually two different guys who work this shift 
on different days, and one of them is named Elroy.
And because I am almost certain that this guy, my waiter today, 
is not him, I say, Your name is Delroy, right? 
I take a guess at a black man’s name because I am now better
than I used to be.
And it turns out that I am right.
But of course I’m right because one of them has dreadlocks.
Actually they both do, but Elroy has a full grown beard 
while Delroy just hasn’t shaved in a while.

It must be obvious what I’m thinking because Delroy says, 
Brother, if you had called me Elroy, I would have let it slide. 
We’re both from the Caribbean and those are common names there.
So in fact, he adds, we are basically exactly the same person.

And I knew that was just plain wrong.
So I tip him, Delroy. I give him a good tip.

from Rattle #73, Fall 2021


Taylor Mali: “In a workshop I once took with Billy Collins, he said the question you always need to ask yourself first is ‘Why should anyone care what I have to say?’ Almost 20 years later, I continue to ask myself that question every day. I don’t always get an encouraging answer, but I don’t let that stop me from writing.” (web)

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