A word of introduction from the author
In King’s Own I assume the voice and personality of King Sallybanks, a retired country-and-western singer who has returned to his roots, become the mascot of a Western separatist party, and been elected Senator from Alberta. His greatest wish, however, is to be a good son to his Momma (although he has embarrassed her throughout his career by letting people believe he is the illegitimate son of King George VI).
King is a self-centred lunk. He has a long memory for the injuries he has suffered and a short memory for those he has caused. Bad feelings have trailed him for decades, at least since his wife’s early death from alcohol. But King is loyal to his friends, he feels remorse for people he has harmed (including the women who charge him with sexual assault thirty years after the fact), and he tries to live up to the promise of his most popular song, “You Can Count on Me.”
On the last page, King ascends to heaven and is welcomed by an angel. Through most of the book, though, he shows his age by dwelling on the past.
Momma gave birth to me in the ballroom of the Elsinore Hotel, on the same table where she had served prime ribs and saskatoon berry pie to the King and Queen the year before, during the 1939 Royal Tour. Waitress, chambermaid, laundress, Momma lived in an upstairs room of the hotel where she worked. She stood on the table dusting the ballroom’s chandelier when her sudden and violent first contractions came. Mrs. Nilsen said that was the best place for her, near the kitchen with its hot running water and stacks of clean towels, so there she stayed. I gave them no time, anyway, to drive Momma to the hospital in Drumheller.
I came out bawling like nobody’s business, and I kept on bawling till I made it to the Country Top 40. Fish gotta swim, coyotes gotta howl, I gotta sing. That simple for me. It’s these young kids I worry about, who when you ask what it is they gotta do in life just look at you blank. I call that a living hell.
King is my name. You’ve heard my voice on the radio. My whole career is summed up in 751 words in Quarry’s way-out-of-date Encyclopedia of Canadian Country, more sketchily in the standard references. My driver’s licence has always said King Sallybanks — my momma’s name, plus the one she gave me against all warnings and the wall-shuddering curses of her father, Big Al Banks, whose name I swore off at the age of sixteen. To most people I’m simply King. The former artist known as King, that’s me. I haven’t written a new song this millennium.
It’s Senator King to some, though technically, I’m only senator-elect. The Prime Minister will never appoint me to the upper house. Nothing personal, of course. It’s just who I am. (Or who the media make me out to be.)
If you’ve only seen pictures you might not recognize me in person, because a cowboy hat hides a lot. It never mattered, for instance, that I didn’t learn to ride until I was a halfway famous cowboy. I grew up in wheat and cattle country more familiar with the stale smell of beer at the back of the tavern than a field of ripe barley. I could tell you the year and make of any car from the far end of the street but didn’t know a steer from a bull when my life depended on it. Though we lived a few minutes from the Bar None ranch, where Momma practically grew up in the saddle, I never rode as a child. That never stopped me from taking a cowboy song and making it mine.
My earliest memory, if I’m not fooling myself, is of dancing to an old-time fiddle reel played by Alice Valentine of the Wild Rose Stringband in the Elsinore ballroom. I feel it in my soles, the floor heaving under the dancing feet of half the whole town at somebody’s wedding. Then Momma in her blue dress and white apron swings me up in her arms and dances me around the floor. I remember her perfumed hair and all the faces smiling at us. Look at King, someone laughed and everyone looked.
Two years old, the first moment that ever sunk into my memory, and there I am in front of an audience. “Over-determined,” a shrink once called me, but hell, if you’re not determined you’ll never get anywhere in the music business. You’ll end up where you started, playing for drunks more likely to throw bottles at you than dollars. You’ll do anything to get past that.
Another memory, almost as early: I’m in Nilsen’s grocery store with Momma, eye level with jars of candy hearts and sugar babies and licorice twists, black and red. Beside the candies lies a stack of Calgary Herald’s with King George’s picture on the front page, inspecting a bombed-out house in London. Thin as a flagpole in his Navy blues, His Majesty is obviously in pain. He has sent his own children to the country for safety (in fact, bombs hit his own palace), but he won’t leave his people in their time of need. With his Queen at his side he visits hospitals and orphanages to keep up morale. Not that all this means much to me as a three-year-old, but I remember staring at his rigid face in the photograph like a baby discovering himself for the first time in the mirror.
King Clancy captained the Maple Leafs in those days. In the hotel coffee shop where Momma waited on tables and I ate my lunchtime sandwiches, Nat King Cole sang on the jukebox, or else Gene Autry, King of the Cowboys. King meant best. Momma made sure I never forgot that. So it didn’t bother me much to be teased with “King’s a dog’s name” or “Come on, whinny like Tom Mix’s horse.”
I ate restaurant food every day of my childhood. Momma and I lived in the hotel, just upstairs from the coffee shop, in the half-finished attic under the eaves right over the Royal Suite (where it’s said the King and Queen did not sleep on their stopover during their 1939 tour, preferring the familiar discomforts of their Pullman car). In the evening, after she closed up the coffee shop, Momma brought a greasy brown bag upstairs and set the table so we could sit down together and eat like a family. Hamburgers and chips most nights, sometimes fish. You could tell when the grease in the deep fryer needed changing, but Momma ground the beef herself so we always had the best. Burgers and chips. They were bread and butter to me, and sometimes corn flakes too. The doc has me on these fool heart pills now, but he says I should have started taking them years ago.
The only cash money Momma made came from tips and overtime, but there was enough of both to keep me in clothes and shoes. To the shock of some of the wives Momma also spent money on herself at the beauty parlour. Seen at this distance we had nothing. Yet we lived above the royal suite, and I grew up feeling like royalty. In those wartime rationing days the King himself ate plain fare, if you could believe the newsreels. Momma and I never went hungry.
Thursday nights, Shorty Wilson arrived in his truck and let me help him carry his gear inside for movie night in the community hall (I carried the rolled-up posters). Families arrived and sat together on noisy foldout chairs, but every time the lights came up for Shorty to change reels, kids raced up and down the aisles blowing off steam, showing off. Even grownups whistled and made shadow puppets on the white screen.
Coming attractions; cartoons; a Western serial that lurched from crisis to crisis each week; at last the feature film, preferably Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown. Action pictures where the action never scuffed the hero’s jeans or prevented him from taking out his guitar at the proper moment, with the leading lady present, to charm everyone with a song. These lessons of childhood, I learned them well.
Most Saturdays Lars Nilsen hired a real live band to play in the tavern. Momma left the door open at the bottom of the stairs and we ate our soggy fries with Lone Pine or the Wild Rose Stringband for our dinner music. I can’t think of a better preparation for the life I’ve led. She’s long-forgotten now, but when Alice Valentine let fly on her fiddle it took more starch than I had in me to keep from jumping up and dancing. That’s the music I grew up with — that and Glen Miller on the juke box — rollicking good-time music that grabs you by the heartstrings and shakes you so you know you’re alive. Most of my hit songs sound maudlin by comparison. You can’t do much dancing when you’re blinded by tears. I’d rather have sung like Jimmie Rodgers, frankly. But I came along in the honky tonk era. What could I do? You roll with the times or they’ll roll over you.
There was so much talk, when I was little, about the day the royal train
came to town, I feel like I should remember it myself. Draped with flags
and tooting its steam whistle, the royal train pulled into the siding by
the Wheat Pool elevator two hours late, at 7:30 on that midsummer afternoon.
People who drove miles and waited in the hot sun all afternoon to see the
King and Queen had lost none of their enthusiasm. Many stood on cars or
wagons for a better view and cheered from their first sight of their majesties
in the window of the slowing train. Schoolchildren waved Union Jacks they
had crayoned on paper. As she greeted her ecstatic subjects, the Queen
paused and bent her ear to a Blackfoot elder clothed in a blanket who had
somehow elbowed his way past the Mountie escort. For a moment the crowd
held its breath, wondering how such an interruption could be allowed. Then
Her Majesty nodded kindly to the Indian and turned back to her stiff-faced
husband. With an escort of redcoats the reception party moved on toward
the Elsinore Hotel where a piping hot roast beef and potato dinner awaited.
The press recorded the moment, and photos of the event lined the lobby
of the post office, where I played on cold days, with the younger faces
of people I knew staring down at me like ghosts from their prison in time.
You know about the royal flush, the ruling hand in poker: Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten, all of the same suit. The odds against drawing to that hand are so great no gambler would bet on it. Yet look what happened to me.
My momma was a Ten, for starters. Hell, she’s still a Ten in my book and she’s way past eighty. In the spring of 1939 she was the closest thing to royalty Elsinore had ever seen. Her nickname (according to her high school yearbook) was Princess. Her father, Big Al Banks, was the biggest rancher in the district in every sense. She was prom queen, captain of the girls’ basketball team, soloist in the choir at Wesley United, and ladies’ barrel-racing champ at the Elsinore Stampede. If any other girl had received the honour of serving prime ribs, mashed potatoes and saskatoon pie to the King and Queen there’d have been a scandal.
The Knave in this poker hand must be Elsinore’s second mayor, Jack (Houndog) Russell, who later disappeared with the town treasury. After the banquet, Houndog snatched the dish towel from Momma’s hands, replaced it with a bottle of twelve-year-old Scotch, and led her upstairs to a very private party in what became known as the Royal Suite.
King, Queen, Knave and Ten. That leaves only the Ace, and that’s me.
I went to Elsinore castle one time, just to take a look. If you’ve seen Zeffirelli’s Hamlet you get the idea: a grey and dreary place on a rainy Danish coast too rocky for anything we’d call farming. Yet the old-timers used to gaze out the window of Nils Madsen’s barber shop and swear the sun-baked hide of prairie reminded them of home. For them home, of course, was no bloody old castle in Europe but the Elsinore where they grew up, in North Dakota.
I’ve been there too, once after a gig in Fargo. (Reno, Toronto, Fargo, Oklahoma; I’ve got as much right as Hank Snow to sing “I’ve Been Everywhere.”) On the drive out from Fargo I could have sworn I was on the road to Calgary or Lethbridge — shortgrass plains, rolling hills brown as a buffalo’s back — except near the canals where fields of sunflowers and sugar beets grew. I never found Elsinore, really. Just a roadside plaque that said where the town used to be, and a mile up the road a little church and a graveyard full of familiar names. None of them belonged to my ancestors, though. They’re buried, half of them, in Westminster Abbey.
In the spring of 1910 Elsinore, North Dakota, was slated for flooding by the Ashtabula dam, so the townspeople simply loaded up their belongings, livestock and all, and rode the Burlington Northern then the Canadian Pacific north and west to the site their mayor, Einar Nilsen, had found for them in Alberta. Midway between the Bow and Red Deer rivers, the new place was so high and dry nothing short of Noah’s flood could threaten it. The day after they arrived, settlers were out on their land, breaking sod and planting crops the North Dakota way. Before long the black soil responded. Merchants and tradesmen moved in, and until the irrigation dam came to Bassano it looked like Elsinore would become the county’s chief market centre.
Einar Nilsen and the pastor laid the cornerstone for the Lutheran church in 1911, on the same day George the Fifth was crowned King over in London. Telegrams of congratulations criss-crossed the Atlantic, and in due time the town office received a framed photograph with a handwritten greeting from the King himself. The portrait hung on the post office wall for decades, ugly enough to scare me as a kid, but proof of the special bond between my hometown and the royal family. In fact it’s why, twenty-eight years later, the new King George scheduled a dinner stop in Elsinore as part of his official visit. To such an improbable coincidence, in other words, I owe my life.
The plane sighs as it begins its descent toward Calgary International. We must be right over Elsinore about now. Nothing much to see from this height. From above, the town looks like the monogrammed hem where a quilt of farmland ends and open range begins — rolling hills to the south, cracked and cragged badlands and the writhing Red Deer River to the north. You can’t see the fossilized remains of herding dinosaurs that lie just under the surface, or hear the high-pitched whistles of a gopher town council, or smell the oil-soaked rail bed where a calf or coyote lies rotting. For the real life of the place you have to get closer.
People fly over this country and think they know it. Politicians, I mean. They talk about a checkerboard of fields as if the prairie was flat as a table and just as dull. I’d like to bring them with me some time — not at Stampede time either — and give them a look they can’t get from the recliner seat of a jumbo jet.
Every Dominion Day, Elsinore turns into a cowboy town, which it never really was. In fact it was one of the farm and market towns that supplied the barbwire to strangle the cowboy way of life. By the time I was born the land of the Blackfoot warrior and the cowboy wrangler had been pretty well sectioned off. Irrigation canals had sent their yellow, blue, green and gold shoots of mustard, flax, wheat and barley out across the drylands. Once a year, though, the savvy townsfolk still celebrated a cowboy legend kept alive mostly by Hollywood.
Main Street, wide enough by regulation to let a hay wagon and team of six make a U-turn, closed down for the afternoon before the holiday, when a special train pulled up to the siding, and a herd of heifers bound for market were chased through the middle of town by a posse of yodeling farm kids dressed up like Roy Rogers. While the townsfolk hooted and hollered, the real cowboys, who rode for cash, quietly detrained at the fairgrounds with the rodeo animals. A carousel, Ferris wheel, freak show and some garishly painted gambling booths appeared overnight, and next morning the Roys and Tex Ritters rode through town again, this time in close ranks, leading the high school marching band. Drum majorettes twirled their batons and high-stepped over the horse manure. The Elks and Kiwanis unveiled the float they hoped would capture a prize at the big parade in Calgary the next week. The whole town waved Stetsons, called each other pardner, and rediscovered forgotten cravings for sticky treats and the stomach-flipping view of Elsinore from atop the Ferris wheel. In the afternoon, the men’s fastball team defended its reputation against teams from Duchess, Bassano and Hussar. The churchwomen supplied pies and casseroles enough to feed the hungry all day, with leftovers set out for midnight buffet at the community hall, where a dance band would play until dawn at four a.m.
The excuse for all this wasn’t just Dominion Day. It was the rodeo. Nothing was the same since the war, of course. You knew that if you listened to the barbershop historians, as I did. The last great rodeo in town, they agreed, was the Elsinore Stampede of 1939. That was the year Joe Blumenshein, Tex Walters, the Groves boys — the greatest generation of bronc-busters Devonian county ever saw — all made their last competitive appearance. By the next year every red-blooded one of them had joined up, if he came from north of the border, or if a Yankee had found better paying work building warships or planes. The best cowboys never came home from the War, old Nils Madsen said, and those who did had lost the taste for bronc-riding.
After the war people forgot how to have fun, forgot where they came from. To the barbershop old-timers the Stampede was hardly even a rodeo any more. Gymkhana, they’d sneer, if anyone mentioned the barrel race, which for me and most people was the most exciting event of the day. All though the calf-roping and steer-wrestling, townsfolk wandered in and out of the bleacher seats. For relief from the long waits between all-too-brief interludes of action they would visit the food tents, root for the home team on the diamond, or ride the Ferris wheel. But come time for the ladies’ barrel race, all the stands were packed, everybody on their feet cheering from the sound of the gun.
My momma was the reigning barrel-race champ from 1937 to '39 (her last Stampede too, as a competitor). By the next summer she had me, her job at the hotel, and not much else. When he found out she was pregnant, Al Banks drove his daughter into Elsinore and left her on the icy boardwalk outside the hotel in the middle of a blizzard. Momma never set foot on the Bar None Ranch again. There was a grey-haired lady who used to sit in the coffee shop and talk with Momma sometimes. She brought us cookies and knit me a sweater one Christmas. But that’s all I remember of my grandma. She was afraid of what Big Al would do if he found out she had anything to do with us, so her visits never lasted very long.
Of my grandfather I don’t remember much more than this: I am three or four years old, swinging my legs over the side of the boardwalk outside McAuley’s store, sucking on a jawbreaker, when his truck pulls up. I must have seen him before this, because I recognize him. I say to myself, there’s Big Al Banks, and shade my eyes from the sun.
Big chested, big booted, big bellied, with a ten gallon hat on his head and a steel chain hanging between his belt loop and the bulging wallet in the back pocket of his jeans, Big Al moved slowly, like a force of nature. He slammed his truck door and stepped over me casually on his way into Thorogood’s hardware. He didn’t even glance down. Maybe he recognized me and half hoped his steel-toed boot would clip me in the ear as he went by. More likely, his gaze was so used to resting on far horizons he didn’t notice a little squirt like me. In the ten years I lived in Elsinore, I never worked up the courage to speak to Big Al, and he never made a sign to me. As soon as I came of age I changed my name from his.
A few years ago, when I moved Momma out of her Crescent Heights bungalow, I found a cigar box full of her keepsakes. One was an old yellowed clipping from the Rangeland Weekly, a report of Momma’s third straight victory in the barrel race. The paper said she was one of the biggest stars of the Stampede in that legendary year of 1939. That isn’t the way the barbershop old-timers remembered it. If they recalled Momma there at all, it was only to snicker and wonder aloud which cowboy it was who knocked her up. No one cared if I overheard. As a rule adults don’t think kids understand a thing that’s said around them. Or maybe they were just being cruel.
In the front page picture Momma is all smiles. She holds up her prize buckle alongside Joe Blumenshein. King and Queen of the Elsinore Stampede, says the caption, dated a month after the royal visit. Momma’s reign didn’t last very long. Neither did Joe Blumenshein’s. He went off to war that winter, one of the first to volunteer, and never came home. Best cowboy ever, the old-timers swore, none too good at dodging bullets.
Gone away to war, was all Momma told me about my father. That was answer enough at first. I wonder why it didn’t occur to me, when the war was over, to ask when he was coming back. Was he the great Joe Blumenshein or the King of bloody old England? Given my druthers, I know who I’d have chosen.
Main Street is fully paved now, with sidewalks and yellow lines painted down each side for angle parking. Nilsen’s store has a big CO-OP sign out front. Little else has changed The Ladies and Escorts signs over the tavern doors have gone, replaced by Casino and Girls Girls Girls. The old post office has a new stairway of precast concrete. The door too has been remodeled in millennium grand. Egyptianized post-modern with a cavetto cornice, boasts the acne-scarred mayor who looks about nineteen. When the door opens, you face a new wall (erected to hide the knowledge I guess) with a green marble veneer, King’s Own Memorial Library spelled out in brass, then a carved inscription with today’s date.
I’m not sure I like the word memorial. I’m not dead yet, even if I no longer look like the dude in the photo beside the inscription. In it I’m in my mid-thirties, my black Stetson tipped back, an expression on my face that I can’t quite find a word for: my eyes in the middle distance, fixed on the goal of learning, perhaps, or else some amphetamine hallucination.
Another day I might make the picture an excuse to bore my listeners with a soliloquy on the toll of time and how youth is wasted on the young. Today I’m having too much fun. I enjoy being followed around expectantly by fresh faces and admiring eyes. And I like being kowtowed to by the bigwigs of this one-horse town that was pleased as punch to see the back of me and Momma all those painful years ago. No one here is old enough to remember, but that only sweetens the pleasure, in a way. Wouldn’t it give Einar Nilsen and his cronies heartburn to know that, after all their hard work and enterprise, their town’s sole claim to fame is as the place where I was born?
I sidle up to the red ribbon in the lobby holding a big pair of scissors in both hands. Floodlights hiss. The cameras roll. I can end this in a second but, now that I have an audience, why hurry? Why shouldn’t they know a bit about the spot where they are standing? The way I used to do on stage when Tiny Thompson had to change a guitar string, I spin them a yarn (every word of it true, mind) about the hours I used to spend in the old library upstairs. It used to open its doors only on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, I tell my captive audience, but I noticed from my room across the street that the light came on at odd hours. And I sometimes saw the shadow of someone moving in front of the window when the library was supposed to be closed.
Once, on one of my regular visits to the postmistress, who left a dish of mints on her counter, I slipped upstairs and discovered the library door slightly open. Inside, an old man bent over the librarian’s desk reading a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was Marcus Silver. (I knew his name from the sign on his jewelry shop.) The watch maker had his own library key. (In fact, he was the “anonymous donor” who bought most of its books.) When he first saw me in the doorway, he shooed me gruffly away, but I was a boy used to coming and going as I pleased. Grownups all the way up Main Street pampered or put up with me. The women at the beauty parlour fussed over me. I read comics by the hour in the barber shop, begged gum and candy from every sympathetic soul I met, and didn’t see why the old miser should chase me away when so many books stood there unread. Finally, when I made Mr. Silver understand that I not only looked at the pictures but at age five could already read some of the books on his shelves, he began to take an interest in me. He didn’t resent my bothering him nearly as much as he enjoyed answering my questions. We came to an understanding. Whenever Mr. Silver unlocked the door for a private read in the library, he would lower the Venetian blinds in the front window as a sign to me, and if I saw it from home I’d come running.
Automobiles and airplanes; bridge building and butterflies; Amundsen and Scott of the Antarctic. I learned about all those things and more in our secret library hours. If I’d stayed to grow up under Mr. Silver’s hand, who knows, I might have ended up a university professor.
I notice one of the reporters rolling her eyes and decide to wrap my speech up quickly. Snip-snip, and the ceremony’s done. The new librarian (still a part-timer) invites me to be the first to officially log onto her virtual card catalogue and search for a book (my own of course). I sign it on the frontispiece (the same photo that hangs in the entrance), then snap-snap, one last wave, a flurry of flashes, and the pinstriped heavyweights escort me back to the limo. Within minutes we’re on our way out of town again, heading south toward the ranch house that, since the party got elected, I call home.
According to a theory I read about in the in-flight magazine, there’s a parallel universe in which I did stay in Elsinore and grow up to be a professor. Far as I can follow it, the theory says whenever two things can happen, they both do, and the universe splits like an amoeba. And since these decisive moments crop up all the time, the number of universes doubles every nanosecond. Total crock, obviously. As good a reason as I can think of to be glad I didn’t go on to become a professor. Still, it’s a puzzle how one chance encounter can change your whole life and through you the lives of everybody you meet from then on. Or don’t meet. For instance, if Momma hadn’t served Red Kelly lunch one day in the hotel coffee shop, she and I might never have moved away from Elsinore, in which case I’d have finished reading the Encyclopedia Britannica but probably would never have eaten Angie Claire’s butterscotch ice cream, or started up a band called King’s Own, or met Ilsa at Archduke Whoozit’s party, or written “You Can Count on Me,” or met Rock Henry and run for the Senate. The mind boggles.
A few sunspots more or less a million years ago and this prairie would still be under water. Or ice. On such a rickety tower of coincidence teeters this seemingly unshakeable country.
You learn a lot about people by watching them listen to music. I’ve looked at audiences across the footlights most of my life, but that’s not what I’m thinking of right now. Last fall, on one of my visits to Momma at the nursing home, she asked me to put on her favourite CD, and we sat back to hear again Vera Lynn sing there’ll be blue birds over/ the white cliffs of Dover, and for those two and a half minutes neither of us said a word. As she listened Momma’s eyes rolled back under their lids, her face softened and coloured and she looked twenty again. We must have lain together listening to that song many times when I was a baby during the war, Momma longing for her sweetheart(s) to come home safe; me nursing drowsily, bulking up like a tadpole in the shallows of the dreamland sea; Dame Vera pining at the top of her lungs, tuning our heartbeats to the passion of hope, not fear. Tears welled up in my eyes as I heard that song again a lifetime later, but Momma didn’t notice a thing. Her eyes were somewhere else, on something behind her eyelids. As the music played and pale sunlight poured through the window, her face shed decades of hardship and disappointment, and I saw again the beauty in her high school yearbook photo. That’s what music can do.
For two and a half minutes we were as close as we’ve ever been. Momma recognized me and forgave. We were mother and child again, and I practically bawled my eyes out. Whatever good has come my way in life, I owe it all to Momma.
Jeez. Half a century writing sappy songs and I can’t help thinking like