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Wanna hear my story?

I come from a long line of bourgeois Americans. All the men were lawyers, landowners, or clergymen. One great uncle was a congressman. All the women were ladies. My great-great grandfather gave my hometown its first public park. It’s called Ellie’s Woods, after a baby daughter who died.

            I’ll tell you Thompsons really were that town. I mean there’s a Thompson Street, a Thompson Place, the H. K. Thompson Central High School, and half the population was related. My father had to break the hell out of there. You can dig it.

            He was a writer. He came to New York City and worked as a newspaperman, then as a publicist. At the end he was a hotel desk clerk. He hung out with bookies, actors, syndicalists. You know, speakeasies, Greenwich Village—he was there.

            He fell in love with my mother on a quick trip home. Later, he sent for her. And she went. That’s something. She packed her bag and actually followed him. Know what I’m saying?

            My father pretty much talked his life out and never wrote much of anything, at least not that they could find after he died, or that they’d tell me about. But my mother, she wouldn’t say one word against him. And she wouldn’t let anyone else either. Not when she had to go back home before I was born, or when he never wrote letters, or never sent her any money or came to see us. Not when he did come home his last visit, with his swollen belly and his overloud voice, and he left again right away. No one, not anyone, could say anything bad about him in front of her. They did in front of me, but that’s another story, right?

            That trip, he wrestled me down on my Uncle Franklin’s front lawn, laughing like anything. I was pressed into the grass, the dirt in my nose. I was seven years old and, you know, nothing has ever felt like that again. Nothing.

            He was dead the next year.

            Well! Whatever he did was beyond reproach in my mother’s eyes. Now me, I had to be beyond reproach too, and that was a whole lot harder. I had to keep my clothes clean. Speak properly. I hadda be polite to all the relatives we used to visit on Sundays. Those were long Sundays. My hair was combed. My ears were clean. I was counted on, I can tell you. Or she’d fix me with those eyes.

You think I’m feelin’ sorry for myself? You think I’m selfish? That’s supposed to get a rise out of me? I’ll tell you selfish: my ex-wife. She took my kid to Paris after we broke up and all she ever did was talk French to him, so now he and I can’t speak. Can you dig that?

            I saw him last year for about two hours. He’s eleven. We had to draw pictures and make gestures. The ex even signed him up in school to learn German instead of English. That’s really fine. She knows I know about five more words in German than I do in French, but I learned ‘em in the army and I don’t have occasion to say ‘em to my son. Now that’s what you call selfish!

            My kid. A Thompson. I have a kid who’s one of those pasty-faced, pigeon-breasted French schoolboys. And he’s a Catholic. Take that, all you Thompsons, way back to when the Missouri was the Indians’ river. He’s a crummy little papist who can’t tell one end of a baseball bat from the other. Now that’s sorry.

            Why don’t you buy me a drink? You want to hear me to tell my story? I’m not doing it free.


Martha King


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2005

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