Benjamin Franklin's Bastard


Philadelphia, 1730

She was named Anne, for the queen.  From what she came to know of Franklin in later years she knew he no longer approved, but back then he delighted in a king or a queen as much as anyone else.  He delighted in many things -- the heat of the fire on his back, the rich, greasy, slice of goose on his tongue, the kick of the cider as it slid down his throat.  She supposed that was part of what drew people to him – his childlike delight in things.  In them.  Simple enough, when you thought of it.

The first time Franklin came into the Penny Pot Tavern Anne noticed him straight away; the Penny Pot sat near the river right next to the shipyard, and its patrons were for the most part the men of the river -- shipwrights, dockhands, corders, sailors -- not men like Franklin.  His looks stood him out, of course, but also the way he worked himself into the room with a crack on the back here, a pleasant word there, a smart quip almost everywhere else.  Even after he dropped into a chair by the fire it kept up, one after another making their way to him to drop a word in his ear and catch a better one back -- Anne could tell they got better than they gave by the looks on the faces of the ones who got.  Even though he couldn’t  have been far past twenty he was someone, she could just tell it; she listened and soon enough learned he was Benjamin Franklin, printer, owner, and editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  And soon enough again Anne noticed him noticing her, noticed him whispering a question to the shipwright Isaac Wilkes.  Wilkes whispered back with the kind of smile men used only amongst themselves; Franklin looked over at Anne and there they were – those eyes full of delight.

He waved her over and asked for a cider.  She brought him one.  He had a cleft in his chin that made something like a wink when he smiled, and it drew her own smile wider.  That first time, as she left him, she thought she saw him tip some cider on the floor on purpose, but it was too odd a thing to believe and she decided she’d been mistaken.  She’d worked her way around the room a few times before he waved at her again, and she circled back with the cider jug, but he didn’t want more cider.  He wanted her to look at the ants.

“Look, there,” he said.  “Do you see those ants on the floor, sipping at my cider?  Now I want you to keep watch.”

Anne watched.  After a time another ant joined the first group, and another and another, which was no great mystery to her, but Franklin said, “Do you not wonder how they do it?”

“Do what, sir?”

“Communicate.  Somehow the first ant has told the others to come here and feast.”

Anne had never before thought about ants communicating, but she thought of it then, and discovered herself equally amazed by it. Franklin must have seen her amazement, for he laughed and gave her arm a pat.  “Could it be I’ve found a fellow scientist?”

He was strange, she must admit it.  But just the same she found herself watching for his coming, and when he didn’t come, no matter if she worked more or less hours, it was a longer night.  One night at the lag end of it he called her over and opened his palm; a British sterling half-crown lay winking in it.  She looked at him and he looked back and she knew well enough what that half-crown was for, but she also knew how many meat pies it would get.   

Benjamin Franklin's Bastard - Quotes

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Benjamin Franklin's Bastard - Reading Guide

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