[Fred Trump, aged 90, in the throes of dementia,
is greeted atop Fifth Avenue to sign some papers]
See I don’t sign it till Maryanne looks it over.
That last one of Don’s codicils she said didn’t
pass the smell test. I told her get—who was it,
Mary, who did my estate last?—I told her—
But I’ve always been careful, always, even
with the kids. They’re yours but they also have
minds of their own. They also want things.
First you want to give them whatever it is
without their asking. Then they grow up and
you start having to negotiate for less. Course
you’re trying to teach them the real value
of something by making it harder to get.
If you’re lucky they’ll want what you have.
But you have to be careful it doesn’t cross a line.
They say the worst betrayals are those against
your own family. That’s the bottom-most hell.
I never let them forget it either. Even Freddy.
I made it clear from day one what I thought of his
drinking and carrying on in that fashion like
some ten o’clock scholar, how it reflected
on all of us. And like Cain in the field he
almost took Donald down with him—Sign
what now? No I don’t sign anything, not
till Maryanne has a chance to look it over—
What was I saying about Freddy? That’s it.
He thought what we had was going to last.
How do you deal with someone like that,
with someone with such lack of ambition?
They pick up on it in the boardrooms like
buzzards picking up a whiff of carcass.
City councils, planning commissions, hearings
from every goddamn government acronym—
He would’ve never made it through all that
because they can always tell whether or not
a man is serious about his work. If he isn’t
he shouldn’t be at the table. With Freddy
I was never sure. I could smell the carcass.
Donald was different—But you know that
already. Here you are with his papers like
an errand boy. What’s your name again?—
Same as his—Is that right? Well you put
those papers down till Maryanne gets here.
I don’t sign it lest she looks it over first.
You can’t be too careful, even with family.
After all, you know Donald—he never made
a lateral move his whole life. This business
with All County, that was Donald and John.
I’d just about said to hell with estate taxes.
Let them take it for all I care. When you’re old
the fight leaves you—doesn’t matter how much
you had before. Old age is cancer on the will.
Besides I fought plenty in my time—won most.
The Henry Ford of homebuilding. That’s what
they used to call me. I built the modern home
for the modern man. Gave them all garages
before they even had cars to park them in.
Those little lawns the size of beach-towels,
those were my idea. So your dog wouldn’t
do his business in the street. I put a roof
over Brooklyn and Queens—A barber’s son!
Son of Elizabeth Christ, God rest her soul,
the bravest woman I’d ever known—dear
sweet Mama—but for our sake you never saw
your Kallstadt again.—Forgive me Mama! for
needing you when father died—I was still just
a boy playing ring-a-levio with the Berghers.
I was scared for you, and you were terrified.
You never cried in front of Johnny or me,
but I always knew when you had—when I
came home from school and saw your eyes
like peppermint candies, your body in chains.
I wanted to lick your wounds, but what
does a child really know about grief? I got
to work instead—caddying, whitewashing,
deliveries and paper routes in Woodhaven,
towing lumber like a mule in wintertime.
I built you homes everywhere in the city—
Say again? What am I supposed to sign?
Christ’s sake can’t you leave a man alone
with his thoughts. I won’t sign, won’t sign!
Where’s Mary? She tells me when it’s lunch.
He’s getting everything now as it stands.
Who? Who do you think. The majordomo.
That’s my son’s name on those papers there.
My name—Or where do you think he gets it from?
Who do you think groomed him? Set him up in
Mannahatta? When you’ve been at this as long as I have
you start playing the long game with everything.
The whole city looks like a floor plan. Your legacy
is something you buy Upstate for the summer.
All the work you’ve done scales up until you
finally see the big picture—It’s all Power Laws.
Course everything starts to seem like work.
You have to know where every conversation
begins and ends. You have to keep an eye on things.
Like with Donald—But I don’t mind. Not at all.
He knows what it means to own something—
It’s yours. You do whatever you want with it.
Did Maryanne say for me to sign these?
She did?—Where’s she run off to now—
Well all right then—Where’s my pen gone.
This poem is in the style of one of my favorite poets, Robert Browning (1812 – 89). Browning was a master of the dramatic monologue. By dressing up his thoughts in the voices of famous figures, both literary and real, Browning was able to study the psychological origins of many difficult ideas like morality, art, and religion. Perhaps you’ve read “Fra Lippo Lippi.” I would also suggest “Andrea del Sarto” (also about art) “Caliban upon Setebos” (my personal favorite) and “Cleon” and the “Epistle of Karshish,” both of which deal with Christianity and religion in general.
While these monologues are often long and full of complexity, they never seem boring to me. Browning does such a great job capturing not only voice but movement too. You get the sense that his characters are actively speaking, that they’re thinking through their ideas. They reason, correctly and incorrectly, they prevaricate, they back-pedal, they reminisce, they say things they don’t mean, they reach conclusions. In short, they feel like real people.
The title comes from a chapter in Gwenda Blair’s biography The Trumps, which deals with Trump’s dad, Fred Trump.
Thank you for reading.