By Jessica McGlyn
The last time she’d seen Thompson, he was hanging out in front of Biddy’s. He’d been armed, as always, with a sketch pad and a pencil behind the ear. She’d been drinking beers at one of those umbrella tables with some guy whose name she’d since forgotten. They’d just arrived, sweaty, from a long bike ride along the Anacostia River. Funny how vividly she remembered such an unexceptional day.
There they were, drinking beers while Thompson stood on the street in the blazing sun, gaping at the people at the tables. No one seemed to mind. He was just sketching, like he always did. Everyone let him draw them, threw money at him for his efforts.
“Hi, I’m Thompson,” he’d said, approaching her, like it was the first time they’d ever seen each other. That’s always how it was with Thompson. He’d handed her a drawing ripped from his pad. There’d been bits of moisture on the page, sweat from his fingers. She wondered why he hadn’t stood in the shade, or worn a hat, or done anything to protect himself from the heat.
The sketch was a caricature but flattering. He’d drawn her eyes big, adorned by long curly lashes. A button nose and pouty full lips. High cheekbones and long wavy hair. Her date had given him some cash. She remembered thinking that it was way too much money.
Still, she liked the picture well enough. When she’d gotten home, she’d placed it in a desk drawer that held nearly expired coupons, old letters from friends, metro cards she wasn’t sure still worked. Stuff she didn’t know where else to put.
No one knew if Thompson was his first or last name. Or where he went at night. He always wore holey shoes too big for his feet. In winter he wore a coat coming apart at the seams. He was alley-cat skinny, bony and overly alert. But he never begged for money or food. He could have been thirty or fifty, it was impossible to tell. He didn’t carry bags of clothes or push carts of things like the homeless people in the neighborhood did. She’d assumed that meant he had somewhere to go when he wasn’t around.
Since that day he’d sketched her at Biddy’s, she hadn’t seen or even thought about him. That had been over a year ago. Running into him again today felt both surprising and expected. She was walking her dogs along Pennsylvania Avenue. He was biking down the sidewalk from the other direction. As he neared her, he laid the bike down and pulled a pad out of his backpack. He was dripping sweat. It was a scorcher just like the last time they’d met.
“Mind if I draw your dogs?” he asked as his pencil screeched across the pad. She’d said sure, why not. He was already doing it and she wasn’t in a rush.
“I’m Thompson,” he said, looking down at the pad as he drew.
“Yeah, you’ve drawn me before.”
He nodded, still sketching.
“I’ve got my own apartment now. And medical,” he continued, apropos of nothing. “Through the government. I been to Iraq. A few times.”
He ripped the sketch from the pad and handed it to her. It was cartoonish but endearing. He’d drawn their eyes big. Smiling mouths adorned with long whiskers. Tufts of fur curling up from their heads.
“It’s super cute,” she searched her pockets. Coming up empty, she added, “I’m right around the corner. Want to walk me so I can pay you?”
He picked up his bike and they walked and talked about how hot it was all the way to her house. Her next-door neighbors, a young couple, were hanging on their stoop drinking beers.
“Hey, this is Thompson,” she said.
“Yeah, we know Thompson,” the guy replied. “Everyone knows Thompson.”
She asked him to wait outside. She went into her house, unleashed the dogs, then searched her pocketbook. All she found was a 20-dollar bill. She thought about running to the store to break it but didn’t have the energy. It was hot. She grabbed a beer from the fridge and walked out the front door.
Thompson was still standing by his bike in front of her neighbors’ gate, but now he was sketching. He stopped once to wipe sweat from his brow. She squeezed by him and opened the gate. The neighbors made a space for her to edge through, two steps above them. She plopped down and popped open the beer. She and the couple chatted about their day while Thompson sketched.
He ripped out the drawing and handed it over the gate to the neighbor woman. She rose half off her seat with an outstretched arm to receive it. She looked it over, nodding with approval. The guy fished around in his pocket and pulled out some cash.
“Can you pass this along?” she handed the twenty to the guy with one hand, taking a swig of the beer with the other. The guy stepped forward, fist full of cash, and placed it into Thompson’s outstretched hand.
Thompson put the money in his pocket and the pad in his backpack. But he didn’t pick up his bike right away. She felt him staring at them and stopped talking. She grasped her beer tighter, wondering why he lingered. It felt like he wanted to say something. It was awkward, him just standing there like that. She wanted him to leave.
Finally, he picked up the bike, nodding goodbye.
“Great seeing you, Thompson,” the neighbor guy called after him. Her shoulders relaxed, her jaw unclenched, watching him ride away.
* * *
Jessica McGlyn lives in Washington, D.C. and is a member of the Capitol Hill Writers’ Group. She writes short stories in a variety of genres.
Love this. Absorb every word with care or else you may miss the bigger picture that Jessica sketched into her story. It doesn’t hurt that the setting is DC, where throwing money at a problem absolves us of our guilt, our responsibility and our lack of humanity. Thompson is holding out hope that he may, one day, be able to sketch someone without the caricature – someone with more depth and soul. But he sketches what he sees. Brilliantly crafted story.