What’s In a Nickname

Contributor’s Marginalia: J. Allyn Rosser on “Pig Fucker’s Wife by Steve Scafidi

China Boy.  Drizzle Drip.  Pig Fucker.   These fond insults are privileged references, proof of an exclusive connection, a shared history, a kind of club.  In the case of “Pig Fucker’s Wife,” nicknames emblematize an entrée into “the secret codes of bullshit” cherished by employees of an obscure, jerkwater cabinet shop.  It seems to me that the crappier the venue, the least paid, the most going-nowhere jobs are those that generate the most memorably (and often perversely) supportive communities.  Partly because the job doesn’t matter much, its product or service being a subcog to the tiniest cogs helping to put in motion the big machine everyone hopes one day to ride on.  People working these jobs are so bored that they expend a lot of effort entertaining one another, constantly observing each other’s quirks, guessing each other’s secrets, noting and publicizing on-the-job follies. The byproduct of this constant inter-scrutiny and joshing is an intimacy that seems to, or wants to, surpass mere familiarity, where nicknames are forged at the drop of a hat.  I once worked with a guy everyone called Balla.  He had a habit of keeping his fisted hands in his pockets.  “Whatcha got in there, Larry, your lunch or a ball of shit?”  That’s all it took.  Since Ball of Shit  is rather cumbersome for every day, and since customers tended to react negatively, Balla he became and remained for the rest of his years there.  You didn’t call him Balla at first, it would be unseemly, offensive; new employees were too low on the social ladder.  You usually had to wait until there was another, newer hire; you had to wait till you’d earned your own nickname before venturing to call him that.  And you never called the boss by any nickname, unless it was one she or he had invented and promoted.

I love the way Steve Scafidi opens “Pig Fucker’s Wife,” within 6 lines giving a densely abbreviated history.  First of all, the card is addressed to Nick — probably the boss (no nickname, and obviously the one Josh assumed would still be there no matter how many years elapsed).  Second, the wife has no name, so presumably she post-dates Josh’s time working there.  Third, it is a “beautiful card”: probably expensive and classy, i.e.,tastefully respectful to the season our speaker later refers to as “x-mas” (as if Christmas were a time- and-letter-wasting euphemism for something we simply have to get through every year).  We gather from this small hint that Josh has not only moved on but up as well, yet he has chosen to keep in touch with the guys in the shop.  Furthermore, he has chosen to retain this foul nickname and to share it proudly with his classy wife.  From this fact we can pretty safely infer that the derivation of Pig Fucker has little basis in fact —  that, see, this conversation took place one day, and Josh said x and Dude said y and Nick called him Pig Fucker, and — well, you had to be there. It was hilarious.  The wife apparently enjoys signing this card (or she’d make her husband do it himself) with this name; it gives her a feeling of quasi-inclusion in this shadowy world Josh has told her countless stupid and funny stories about.  It must be like a novel she knows the synopsis of but has never read.  We can hear in this gesture — the sending of this annual card, which proves he has told his out-of-their-league wife about them — an abiding affection Josh doesn’t know how else to convey except in acknowledging, and voluntarily owning, the name they gave him.

The first-person plural speaker clearly gets a kick out of the memories this name recalls, or Pig Fucker wouldn’t be repeated four times in nine lines, five if you count the title.  I love the way Scafidi gives the rather complicated history of Kevin’s nickname Shack, while leaving such gems as Drizzle Drip to the imagination; the full history of the former heightening the pleasure of guessing at the latter.  I love too the backwoods sense confirmed by their thinking the phrase  “Cabinetmaker in Manhattan” sounds magical (after all, they too are cabinetmakers), partly due to the assonance, partly to the city’s reputed sparkle of potentially huge success.  The idea for example that Drizzle Drip Drew has become wealthy “doing something legitimate” is a source of pleased wonder to these palookas with their big going-nowhere sloppy hearts who wish the moved-on every happiness, knowing they have left their big sloppy stamp on each and every one.

J. Allyn Rosser

J. Allyn Rosser is the author of Bright Moves, Misery Prefigured, and Foiled Again. She teaches at Ohio University, where she edits New Ohio Review.