Two Lunches, by Paul Theroux

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Mustard/Ketchup, by Gabe Fernandez © The artist. Courtesy Russo Lee Gallery, Portland, Oregon

[Fiction]

Two Lunches

Adjust

You’re seldom suspicious when you’re happy, and so I didn’t realize that the whole awful business was about to start when Vita said, “It’s been ages since you had lunch with Frank. Why don’t you two grab a bite?”

Whenever Frank was asked a question he didn’t want to answer he’d say, “Look in the mirror and ask yourself that.” I was tempted that day, but instead I smiled at my lovely wife while I contemplated my hateful brother.

As the kind of lawyer he was, Frank had a whopper license, and it helped, because he told awfully long, rather dubious stories. It was sometimes the same story, or nearly so. Now and then it was one I had told him that he later told back to me, inserting himself, with embellishments, not remembering it was mine. Talkers who repeat themselves pay no attention to their listeners—they’re at an imaginary podium, waving their arms, broadcasting to a crowd—and are usually themselves bad listeners, if not completely deaf. Many people found Frank’s stories amusing; others called him a bore and said, “How do you stand him?”

Yet I was often fascinated by Frank’s stories. You don’t have to like someone to listen. When I was in the mood, I heard him repeat them, noting how he changed them in the telling, what he left in, what he omitted, the exaggerations, the irrelevancies, the new details.

The nun who caught him smoking: in one version, she told him to confess it as a mortal sin and lingered outside the confession box to hear him bare his soul to the priest. In another, she forced him to kneel on a broomstick a whole day as punishment. In the one I liked best, the nun handed him his half-pack of unsmoked cigarettes and made him eat them. But I knew that because of wheezy lungs Frank had never smoked.

The one about his being brutally murdered in Florida by a drug gang: his bullet-riddled body discovered in a Miami mansion, his face mangled beyond recognition. Our parents got the call, on a weekend when Frank was on vacation, and they were devastated. Turned out, the man had Frank’s stolen passport on him. A great story, but untrue.

Another: his saving the life of my high school friend Melvin Yurick, whom he’d found bleeding at a campsite in the local woods, Yurick having gashed his hand with a hunting knife. In Frank’s telling, by rescuing Yurick he’d altered the course of history, because Yurick later became a billionaire pioneer in digital media. The story was mine—it was I, hiking with Yurick, who’d stanched his blood and helped him home. The part about Yurick becoming a billionaire was true though.

I listened to know Frank better, because even as a child I found him tricky, cruel, dangerous, and unreliable, as well as (people can sometimes be their opposites) direct, kindly, reassuring, and helpful. There was so much of Frank, and he was so contradictory, the whole of him so overwhelming, I had to deal with him in pieces. Although he made a convincing enough pretense of being my friend, I knew he didn’t like me.

He was a local hero, Frank Belanger Esq., Injury Law, a successful attorney in our town of Littleford. Because of our name (school kids are such mockers of names), we Belanger brothers were known as the Bad Angel brothers. Frank was a tough opponent but a good ally, very wealthy from the accumulation of contingency fees. Whiplash windfalls, he called them. He made no secret of his ambition, crowing to me when we were kids, I want to be so rich I can shit money! He defended wounded people who were usually poor, so justice was money, punishment was money, reward was money, morality was money, love was money. His admiring clients quoted his well-known remark, I bite people on the neck for a living, with approval.

He’d plagiarized that, and other wisecracks, from a ruthless lawyer he’d worked for, named Hoyt. I was no match for Frank’s sarcasm, his competitive nature, or his killer instinct. I had left home to escape his shadow. My work as a geologist kept me away, at first in the West, then in the wider world, a spell in Africa, later—my cobalt years—in the Northwest. Earlier, when I married Vita, I bought a house in town and returned more and more frequently as my mother aged and was cheered by visits. Vita, who’d grown up in the unregulated sprawl and improvisation of South Florida, found the solidity and order of New England a reassurance. And this was also a chance for our son, Gabe, to attend my old high school and be a Littleford Lion.

Usually, when he heard I was in town, Frank insisted on meeting for lunch, always at the Littleford Diner. If I was free I tended to agree, because seeing him, hearing his stories, I was able to gauge the temperature of our relationship. Family members have a special untranslatable language of subtle gestures, finger play, winks and nods, little insults, odd allusions and needling words, that are devastating within the family yet meaningless to outsiders.

But when Vita urged me to have lunch with him, I smiled—and equivocated. And a few days later I said flatly no, because of the way Frank himself asked in an email, framing it as a demand, putting Lunch in the subject line, with the date and time, and the message, Be there.

I had left home to avoid orders like this. Mineral prospecting and exploration could be frustrating and expensive—I had started out with an old van and a dirt bike, testing samples of gravel from dry riverbeds in the Arizona desert for surface gold. I liked the freedom, and now and then I hit pay dirt. Early on, I was a one-man company, so I could do as I wished, and later, with money, I acquired technology and dug deeper. In the years when I traveled internationally, I specialized in industrial diamonds in Australia and emeralds in Colombia and Zambia. My contracts were sometimes with major conglomerates, which helped develop the claims, but even at my busiest I was never subjected to any rigorous oversight. My success rate spoke for itself. I was trusted by the companies that hired me, and if I happened to be given orders, they were tactfully phrased. No one in the extractive industry ever loomed over me and said, Be there.

As a child I was given commands by my father, and when he died, Mother was the order giver. Now that she was fading, it seemed that Frank was becoming the dominant one in the family. I disliked his insistence, his barking an order, so I did not reply to his invitation.

I was at my desk in my study when Vita pushed open the door and said, “Got a minute?”

This is always a daunting question for me, but it was especially worrying that day. Vita and I had been going through a marital transition. It had begun when I formed a mining company to conduct an extensive search in Idaho for a source of cobalt—ethical cobalt as opposed to the free-for-all in the Congo, where small children sat in the mud in remote Kolwezi, clawing at ore-bearing sludge. The Idaho search area was vast, the high-tech equipment others had trained on it had been expensive. This is not the place to describe nuclear magnetic resonance imaging or satellite technology in prospecting, but these had been used, without finding the coppery deposits that indicate a source of cobalt.

I knew the area, I had prospected nearby in my early dirt bike days; the landscape had distinctive features and a morphology—a shapeliness, an attitude—I could read. More telling than that, I could sense it. Some ores have a singular taste and smell, their presence pulses in the ambient air and can be pinned down in the word geologists often use: its facies, the gestalt of complex rock formations. I was away for months and the result was a deposit that would lead in time to the most productive cobalt mine in the United States. Riches: cobalt is the essential element in the battery of every smartphone, every computer, every electric car, every gizmo.

My success also signaled a crisis in my marriage. In recent years, with each of my prospecting trips—trips I had taken all my married life—Vita had drawn away. Before the cobalt strike, I’d been in the Zambian Copperbelt, pioneering the mining of high-quality emeralds. I was gone for months at a time and on each home leave felt a growing distance between Vita and me; with her objecting more and more to my absences, I knew I’d have to work to regain her trust. What made this hard was that, although I always returned, I made the mistake of the committed—the single-minded, the selfish—traveler, who regards travel as a mission. I stopped coming all the way back. I was distracted by a new venture. Having seen the exploitation of children mining cobalt in the Congo—a subject that Vita herself was outraged by, as a board member of the agency Rescue/Relief—I became involved in the mining of ethical cobalt in Idaho.

Then something unexpected: Vita did not scold me for being away. She said she happened to be preoccupied, she clucked and went about her business; and if you were outside this marriage looking in you’d feel all was more or less well, because so little was said, two busy people, life returning to normal, no raised voices, the marriage ticking away.

But that ticking, which was in fact a silence, something like acceptance, was ominous. It seemed to indicate that we were too far apart to talk—not a peaceful silence but a shadow of distrust, and now I felt our marriage was hollow and unrepairable.

I didn’t have another woman. I had work and prospects. My business was booming—I was content. But I was alone.

No anger, no yelling. It was not hatred, because hatred is passion, and passion means caring. It was worse than hatred. She was indifferent and loveless. She simply didn’t care.

I had returned home to find a changed Vita. She reminded me that she had asked me not to take the Idaho contract, that she was (as she put it) “perimenopausal,” and hadn’t I been away long enough? I told her that although I constantly referred to what I did as “my work,” I did not regard it as work. I loved being active, I enjoyed the challenges of being outdoors—of bad roads and tent camps—hauling technical equipment into the wilderness to locate a mother lode. It was treasure hunting, involving risk and expense. And my months of diligent prospecting in Idaho had paid off.

Vita was not impressed. I said, “It wasn’t easy—I missed you.”

“I told myself you were dead. I got on with my life.”

“The strike was huge,” I said. I never uttered the word cobalt or said that it was in high demand as the essential metal in every serious battery on earth. I never mentioned how much money I was making. I explained that my contract included a sharing clause, which meant that I had to make a personal investment on the front end, but I would profit on the back end if we were successful.

And so it happened. It was still early but the cash flow was considerable, which was the reason I could go home more frequently. But I had stayed away too long. I came home to a different house, to a wife I scarcely recognized, and—sadly—one who scarcely recognized me. I could see the upset in Gabe, obviously torn. Vita had worked on him. He was different, too—sad, confused, watchful. When I tried to hug him, he squirmed out of my grasp. The worst of it was that he had been accepted to law school, and I could not share his joy.

My great strike in Idaho, Vita now a wealthy wife, and successful in her own career, Gabe on the dean’s list—three great developments. We had every reason to be happy.

That was the situation when Vita pushed the door open and said, “Got a minute?”

I happened to be busy mapping a further Idaho claim, but I put it aside because of the delicate time and said, “Sure. Have a seat.”

“I’ll stand.” She folded her arms.

“What’s on your mind?”

“Did you get a message from Frank?”

I smiled hearing her speak his name, because whenever I heard it I was on my guard.

“Yes, a week ago, after you suggested it, he emailed me about lunch.”

“You didn’t reply.”

“I’m—ah—crafting a response,” I said. It was a typical Frank expression, like his others: In this fashion and At this juncture and I’m thinking it over mentally. Then I said, “How do you know I didn’t reply?”

“He’s waiting.”

“Okay—I’ll tell him I’m not going. I’ve heard enough from him.”

“You really ought to go, Cal.”

I remembered his message: Be there. And Vita was repeating this command, punctuating it with my name.

As a geologist in seismic locations, I knew that shaky ground was something actual, and undesirable, and often dangerous. I’d just had another great commercial success, but I’d returned to uncertainty in marital terms. And with Vita standing there, and my fearing a long discussion that would become a harangue possibly ending in tears, I knew what I must do. I wanted to stay happy.

The lunch he’d proposed was in the week of my birthday and, as I’ve mentioned, the period of one of my greatest successes as a prospector—ethical cobalt. Frank was a man of insinuations, of subtle gestures and sly asides, and long ambiguous stories rather than explicit statements. But, as always during these lunches, it helped to know where I stood, and he had what Vita often called “lunchtime charm.”

“Fidge,” he said, rising from the booth to greet me. I was at the diner on time, but obviously he had gotten there early—his coat was arranged on a hanger rather than slung on a hook.

Fidge was my childhood nickname. I’d been a restless, fidgeting youth. Apart from Frank and our widowed mother, no one else in the world used this name for me. It was like an obscure password. I was not Pascal, or Cal, to either of them: I was Fidge, with all that name implied.

“Hi, Frank, how you doing?”

I sat across from him in the booth by the wall and took a menu out of the rack near the ketchup bottle and other condiments. He sat in a prayerful posture, with his hands folded and his head lowered. Did he remember my birthday? Did he know of my success in Idaho? And what stories was he going to tell?

He lifted his head to stare at me with his odd lopsided face. It was divided into two vertical planes: the right part—cheek, jaw, portion of forehead enlarged by baldness, and cold eyes, swagged downward in a frown—and the left part uplifted in a smile, the contradictory face you see on some Greek masks. When the facial droop on his right side was saying no, his left side—eye and crinkled forehead—was insisting yes. I imagined this complex face, with its built-in stare to register righteous surprise, to be very intimidating to a witness and very persuasive to a jury. His angular expression operated independently, so he actually had two faces, one opposing the other. As for the set of his jaw, his bared teeth were also at odds, as though he were biting open a pistachio. He seldom smiled, but when he did his mouth had, ironically, the goofy gape of a pistachio nut.

Poor guy, you think, but no. His was not an affliction, it was a boast that set him apart as someone special. What had begun in his teenage years, after a spell of mumps, as a mild form of Bell’s palsy, Frank had discovered to be an asset, and he somehow contrived to remain uncured, his face fixed and asymmetrical, and looking—he once told me with pride—like a pirate. Something else: I always felt that he was scowling at me furiously behind this face.

“There’s a short answer and a long answer to that,” he said of my harmless greeting. “The short answer is I’ve got a ton of things on my mind.” His eyes dismissed this as he agitated his folded hands. He said, “The long answer is what I have on my mind, the details. I keep thinking, when Dad was my age he had a small insurance agency, and was in debt because of some bad faith policies, and two young kids. I don’t know how he kept his composure . . . ”

I started to say, Dad was an optimist, and was going to add how he was positive and spiritual, his piety giving him strength, but Frank had unfolded his hands to gesticulate and was still talking.

“ . . . something to do with not facing facts, being a kind of dreamer. Ask him what he did for a living and he’d say, ‘Insurance, but what I’ve always wanted to do was some sort of forestry-related work.’ He wanted to be a forest ranger! I could never live like that. What I never understood . . . ”

Dad never wanted to be a forest ranger. But instead of correcting Frank, I said, “He admired you for having important friends.”

This seemed not to register. Frank said, “Think of it. How he died before the reckoning came. It was Mum who had to face the music. She had her feet on the ground.”

“And her parents’ money.”

Frank wagged his finger, using it to clear my statement away. He said, “She paid back every penny.”

This was an old story I’d heard before. In an early version the debts were forgiven and Dad was absolved, but Frank had advised Mum on the procedure. Today, Mum was the heroine, having settled Dad’s bad faith debt. Something was unspoken, too. I had always been Dad’s favorite, and Frank’s disparaging him as a deadbeat seemed a dig at me—another of those roundabout, untranslatable family slurs I referred to earlier.

“Can I get you gentlemen a drink?” It was the waitress, an older woman with a weary smile and a pad in her hand.

“Tomato juice, please,” I said. “No ice.”

Clasping his hands again, Frank said, “Water.”

“Still or sparking?”

“Tap water.”

“Shall I tell you today’s specials?”

“Pass,” Frank said in a snippy voice.

Seeing the woman wince, I said, “I know what I’m going to have. A cup of clam chowder and the grilled haddock.”

“Good choice. Mashed potato or salad?”

“Mashed potato.”

“And you, sir?”

Frank said, “Same here.”

The waitress repeated the order, reading from her pad. She then said, “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”

Frank leaned toward me. “Imagine, Dad an insurance stiff grandly calling himself an importer.”

“It was his hobby. Some of the stuff he sold was made overseas. China, for sure. Like a lot of my drilling equipment.”

Leaning closer, as though to someone on a witness stand, Frank said, “Think how hard it is to be who you say you are.”

Leaving me with this enigmatic thought, he sat back, looking pleased with himself.

The waitress set down my tomato juice and Frank’s water and said, “Food’s on the way.”

Frank tapped the side of the glass with one finger, as though to test its temperature. “What was I saying?”

“Mum paid back every penny.” I did not correct him. I was enjoying this skewed version of the story.

And there was more. The valiant widow repaying her late husband’s debt with her own money. And Frank taking time off from his law practice to help her. As he talked I noted the variations in the story—Dad now portrayed as selfish and neglectful, concealing his profits, squirreling money away, defaulting on his debts, undermining the family.

At a certain point in the conversation, my interest waned. I found this painful to hear, as though by listening to it I was being disloyal to Dad. I said, “What about the things Dad did that had nothing to do with money? His sacrifices. His great heart. How he never complained. He loved Mum. He adored her. That counts for a lot.”

Frank stared at me as I spoke, expressionless, his slanted lips narrowed, unimpressed, or else not listening. He was a relaxed and expansive talker, but he was an impatient and agitated listener, and his blank stare demonstrated his impatience.

He said, “Every time I pick up a screwdriver I think of how Dad used the tip of a knife as a screwdriver so all the knives in our cutlery drawer had a sort of twist at the tip, a weird little kink, where it was used to remove a screw.”

“I do that sometimes.” Frank knew this, he’d often mocked me for it. Some of those damaged knives might have been my doing.

“And not only the knives,” Frank said. “What about the time he lunched the car door?”

He was belittling Dad, yet I smiled at a Littleford word I loved—like bollocky for naked, tonic for soda, hosey for choose, and What a pisser.Lunched meant ruined, but I hated hearing it applied to something Dad had done.

“Banged the door against a parking meter in a hurry to see a client.”

“Just a ding,” I said.

“Then, trying to smooth it out he pushed too hard on his electric buffer and fried the coil—lunched that, too.”

“Two lunches, what’s the big deal.”

“One lunch too many,” Frank said.

“Clam chowder,” the waitress said, sliding the cups toward us. “Haddock’s coming up.”

“Consider being a woman that age,” Frank said, as the waitress hurried away. He was nodding knowingly. “Probably fiftysomething and still hustling for tips. You know what waitresses make? Probably around a buck and change an hour.”

He said this sourly, so I said, “She’s about my age—and younger than you.”

Frank rapped on the table and said in an insistent hiss, “Cash is king.”

I was looking at his lips, how they trembled with these words, and expected him to say more. But there was no more. I dumped my oyster crackers into my chowder and began eating. Watching me with damp lips, Frank stirred his chowder, dabbing at it with his spoon, but instead of eating any, he went on fiddling with it, like a chemist with a potion. His not eating disconcerted me and made it hard for me to swallow until, self-conscious, I gave up and pushed my half-eaten cup aside.

Frank was still poking at his untasted chowder. He said, “Took Dad and Mum to the governor’s ball. Mum just sat, dazzled. Dad goes up to Senator McBride and says, ‘I remember your father.’ ”

“Dad was very congenial. The only people he couldn’t stand were lazy, aimless types. Remember his expression?”

Frank was staring at his chowder.

“He’s like a fart in a mitten—nice.”

But Frank said, “McBride’s father was convicted of bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud. He served six years in a federal lockup.”

The waitress returned with two plates. “Still working on that?” she said to Frank, who’d left his spoon in his untasted chowder.

“Take it,” he said and nudged it with his knuckles.

The waitress set down the plates of haddock, and clearing away the chowder cups said, “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thanks,” I said and started to eat, but seeing Frank poke at his fish as though he were trying to find out if it was edible, I was thrown and found it hard to swallow.

“How’s your son?” I asked.

Frank said, “Look in the mirror and ask yourself that question.” He lifted and dropped the food on his plate, seeming to seek something underneath it. He did this studiously, with a faint scowl of disgust on his lips.

I wondered whether he’d ask me about Gabe. I was proud of Gabe’s academic record but decided not to volunteer anything unless Frank asked. Frank’s head was down. He was making a little hut of his heap of mashed potatoes, squaring the sides, hollowing out the middle, roofing it with flakes of his broken fish. I watched him resisting his food, and his stubbornness made me recall his slights and abuses when we were younger. In my angered imagination I pictured myself dragging him out of the booth and violently force-feeding him. It was the way an imprisoned hunger striker was fed, first immobilized, strapped to a restraint chair, a nasogastric tube pushed into his nose and snaked into his throat, and nutritious slop hosed into him, while he gagged and struggled to breathe. Force-feeding had been used many times on prisoners, and it was deemed torture—cruel, inhumane, degrading, and sometimes fatal—but torture as a fine art, making it especially pleasant for me to contemplate Frank (who once mentioned to me that he approved of it) intubated and choking to death, unable to speak or to tell me another bullshit story.

“McBride later joined the D.C. branch of my old firm.”

I needed to remind myself that this was the father of the senator Dad had apparently insulted.

“Became a lobbyist.”

Frank launched into a vaguely familiar story about lobbying, setting up businesses on tribal land in Idaho, leasing agreements and financial schemes, saying, “Some of that land is fractionated,” and repeating the phrase, “Cash is king.” But as he was still poking at his food—sculpting it, so to speak—and not eating, I could not understand his story. I knew I had heard it before, something about casinos, but this time it had a different emphasis that caught my attention and seemed personal. “Mineral rights,” he kept repeating, and I wondered whether he was referring in some enigmatic way to the cobalt deposit I’d discovered in that same area of the state. Yet as long as he pushed his food around his plate, and did not eat any of it, I was too distracted with my fantasy—force-feeding him to death—to follow his story.

To get him to stop, I said, “Do you want anything else?”

“Yes,” he said. “I want to find the rich jerk who took a dump on me—kept me waiting in an outer office for almost an hour, seeming to take some pleasure in it, and then snubbed me when he deigned to see me. ‘We’ll get back to you. Have a nice day.’ ”

“When was this?”

“When I was nineteen, the summer I did office work for that Boston law firm.” He pushed his plate aside. “I’d like to punch him in the face.” In an early, much longer version of this story, the rich jerk was a young woman, and Frank had an exquisite rejoinder to Have a nice day. He said, I have other plans. In another version, it was an older woman and he demanded to see her boss. Getting even was a mission with Frank; but you never really get even—you just do more damage.

“Anyway, I heard his wife ditched him.” Frank folded his arms, presiding over his strange mounded plate of uneaten food. “Turned out he wasn’t doing his homework. But here’s the kicker. He claimed he stumbled on some stairs and bumped his wang on the newel. So what does he do? He sues the building’s owners for loss of consortium. Because of the injuries he sustained in his stumble, his wife has been deprived of her”—Frank lifted his hands and clawed air quotes near my face—“husband’s services.” He twisted his swagged face into a smile. “Her comfort and happiness in his so-called society have been impaired by his damaged wang. Hey, I hated the guy, but I learned something.”

I wanted to ponder “loss of consortium,” but I had indigestion. I was disgusted by my half-eaten meal, and I was disturbed at the sight of Frank’s uneaten one, which, scraped and combined, was lumped like garbage.

“Fidge,” Frank said suddenly, shoving his cuff. “Look at the time—gotta go.”

He slid out of the booth, lifted his coat from the hanger, and left in a hurry.

He had not eaten anything. He had not asked me a personal question. He had deflected my own. To a passerby—such as the waitress who was approaching the booth—his stories were rantings, if not borderline insane. But I knew they contained a meaning.

“Someone wasn’t hungry,” the waitress said.

I thanked her, gave her a bigger tip than she was expecting, and spent the rest of the day reflecting on the lunch—what Frank said, what he didn’t say, his having eaten nothing, and I grew melancholy.

As a prospector, in the business of searching wild places for minerals and metals, I’d dealt with some rough individuals. They were ornery or contrary, but I could handle them; they were difficult, but like me they were looking for profit and were willing to work hard for it. Prospecting for any ore is a physical challenge and only the toughest are equal to it. These men and women didn’t intend me any harm; it was territorial—they wanted to be the first to stake a claim.

Frank was different: his was a mental game, no risk involved, and it was personal. He wanted to torture me, he enjoyed seeing me suffer, he aimed to ruin me. I had no idea why.

Over the years, I was frequently far away from Littleford and Frank, but even at a great distance he could be obnoxious. He had a gift, common to tyrants, of insinuating himself into my consciousness and humming there like a fever. When I was anywhere near him, he was unbearable. I banished vengeful thoughts from my mind and was unfailingly courteous to him, the way you might behave with exaggerated politeness to someone you dislike, because you don’t want your contempt to show.

We’d been born three years apart, to older, grateful, and therefore indulgent parents. I came second and was the happier for it, because so much less was expected of me. As the firstborn, Frank was adored—he was a pleaser and a prodigy, Mother’s favorite. Father consoled himself with me, as both of us were lowly and solitary. Like Dad, I was restless, good with my hands, but slow to speak. I didn’t mind the attention that Frank got from Mother; to be overlooked freed me from the responsibilities and high expectations that burdened Frank, who was (Mother said) destined for great things.

In an early family portrait, taken in a Littleford studio, we fitted together as a plausible and matching quartet, parents and children. Mother was small and delicate and smiling; Father, stern, his features echoed in those of the two boys, his beaky face with his interrogating nose, his querying, close-set eyes, thin, skeptical lips, sharp chin, dense, dark hair, thick at the sides, modifying his large, sagging ears. Quebecois features, he would have said, but powerful. In a red flannel shirt he’d have looked like a lumberjack; in his expensive suit he could have passed for an aristocrat: a bit foreign, aloof, with an air of concealing something—his origins perhaps.

It was this, though he seldom mentioned it: his mother was Native American—and our mother had an Abenaki in her ancestry. So we Belangers were special in Littleford, where everyone but us had an immigrant story. We had no tale of an Atlantic crossing, no Ellis Island stopover, only the simple fact that in hard times the families (Mother was a Bouchard) dropped into New England from the north, after being in Quebec forever, or before recorded time, at least recorded in family memory.

That’s who I was and where I came from; but the early family photographs of Frank and me are misleading. Family features are not fixed. You start out looking somewhat alike and then you change; in time, experience and circumstances and moods begin to work on those features. In high school, even with his palsied face, Frank and I resembled each other enough to be recognized as brothers, but after I left home for college, becoming myself—my face reflecting the person within me, my features softened, my eyebrows growing owlish, my lips readier to smile, my eyes more welcoming to new scenes; and I’d become muscular, while Frank had grown fatter, his face more asymmetrical and complacent, a malicious mask for his ruthless ambition. By my late twenties no one would have taken me to be Frank’s brother, and that suited me. We made our difference emphatic in the two ways we pronounced our name. I kept to Dad’s slushy Quebecois way of saying it, “Bel—onzhay,” while Frank’s clanged, “Bel—anger.” But never mind—in Littleford we were always the Bad Angels.

The focus was mainly on Frank, who’d stayed in town. He said he had a righteous reason. The summer after Frank graduated from high school, Dad died of a heart attack in his office, Belanger Insurance, in Littleford Square. He was forty-nine years old. It came without warning. He smoked a pipe, he was a moderate drinker, and he seemed to be in good health. This was an ominous sign to Frank and me: a warning that we too might be struck down at an early age, and I’m sure it was a factor in both of us living with a particular urgency, the shadow of Dad’s death hanging over us. Being an insurance man, convinced of the necessity of being heavily insured, and shrewd in devising the most beneficial policy, his death made Mother wealthy in a manner that she found daunting. What to do with all this money?

That was when Frank announced that he would not leave Littleford. After he graduated from law school, he would remain in town to protect Mother. “I’m staying. I’m looking after Ma. With all this money, she’s got a target on her back.”

Mother was relieved, because Frank was exceptional. But this notion of his high intelligence was a burden. The assumption of his having to work wonders was so powerful that it made Frank a cheat at an early age, and this cheating altered his features, first his eyes—a flintiness, then the exaggerated droop in his face. He knew his lopsided gaze was intimidating. Needing to win, to be best, made him into a bully; having to score high marks meant he often had to bluff his way, fudge his answers, and that pressure turned him into an arguer and an explainer and a blamer, a public school pusher, later a neck-biting lawyer.

This makes him sound repellent, and if this were the whole of him you’d write him off as a monster and avoid him. Yet there was more, not another side of him but a subtler aspect of that same treacherous side. He could seem kind, he had a residue of charm, he knew how to be generous, he had mastered the art of persuasion. All these plausible qualities made him likable, yet they were insincere and shallow, merely strategies to aid him in his manipulation. And really this charm and apparent generosity in such a man was proof of his darkness. At his most sinister he seemed trustworthy. His skill lay in knowing how to exploit a person’s weakness. He would have made a great actor, a master of tonalities and gestures, convincing in every role he chose to play.

Frank was so full of surprises that it occurred to me early on (and the thought persisted throughout my life) that though he was my brother, and we’d grown up in the same house, I did not know him. But one day he offered a glimpse of his heart. I was in grad school, pursuing my studies as a prospector; and Frank, in his last year of law school, for the first time took an interest in my career. He was swayed by one word.

We were home for Thanksgiving, raking leaves in the driveway, while Mother roasted the turkey and, in Dad’s memory, made his signature dish, a poutine his Quebecois mother had made for him, but one that Mother disparaged as “peasant food.” It was a mass of French fries topped with cheese and brown gravy—hearty but not much to look at.

While we were raking, Frank asked about my classes. I mentioned metallurgy and chemistry, X-ray diffraction and assaying.

He misheard this last word as “essay,” and so I explained what it was and that I wanted to buy my own assay kit, which included a small furnace.

“To what end?” he said, skeptical when I mentioned the price.

“Gold,” I said.

That was the word. It silenced him, it gave his face a look of hunger and his eyes traced a sort of pattern on my face as though trying to read my expression or penetrate a secret. His fingers twitched on the handle of his rake, clutching motions that matched his hungry face. I had uttered a magic word.

I tried not to smile, because the emotion throbbing in him was one of the oldest in the world. Yet all I had told him was my simple ambition as a student of mines and metallurgy—to look for gold, or platinum, or copper, much as a lawyer might look for clients.

In an old historical novel about an early European voyage, I once came across the sentence “Precious metals excited the greed of conquest.” There it is in a few words: the history of world exploration and colonization, the politics of plunder, the lust for gold. For the Spanish in the Americas, the Portuguese in Africa and India, the Dutch in the Indies, the English, too, the quest for gold was paramount. De Soto looked for gold in Tennessee but didn’t find it. Cortés massacred the Aztecs for gold, Pizarro killed the Inca king Atahualpa because the Incas, too, were gold seekers, and Atahualpa’s throne was made of 183 pounds of gold. In 1595, the Spanish captain Mendaña sailed thePacific Ocean from Peru to the Solomon Islands looking for gold; that same year, Sir Walter Raleigh crossed the Atlantic and splashed his way up the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado—the Golden Man in his fabled City of Gold. Twenty years later, in 1614, John Smith tacked up and down the New England coast, tramping the dunes, for gold. Gold in China, gold in New Guinea, the Gold Rush in California, and fifty years later the gold rush in the Klondike area of the Yukon.

I did not tell Frank any of this; I knew it from my geology courses—the quest for precious metal was as old as humankind. A gold bead ornament found in Bulgaria was determined to be 6,500 years old.

“What?” I said, because Frank had not said anything but was still running his tongue over his lips and swallowing, as though in the throes of gold fever.

“Gold,” he whispered.

“Dentists need it, you find it in electronics—gold is a great conductor,” I said in a matter-of-fact tone, the way you might talk about plastic or rubber. “It’s in medicine. It helps treat arthritis. Oh, yeah, and jewelry.”

“That’s what you’re studying?”

“One of the metals,” I said, more casually, because I had his attention. “There are other precious metals. Palladium. Iridium. Osmium. Your pen nib is probably osmium. Lots of that stuff in Alaska.”

He was swallowing urgently, he did not know what to ask, but he wore a fixed expression of longing—one of the rare instances when I could read his mind.

“Dinner’s ready!” Mother called from the porch.

Frank did not move. He was staring at me with greedy eyes, and he looked at me differently after that, as someone who, after a long journey, might return with a sack of gold.

I was puzzled by that lunch. He dislikes me, I thought, and went no further, because who wants to enter the head of the person who hates you? But it also occurred to me that he might have had a stomach upset—he tended to be bilious in every sense—and maybe it was too painful for him to talk about. Maybe he was depressed, though apart from the divorce from his first wife long ago and a period of deep gloom, I’d never known Frank to be depressed. He made a point of being jaunty, especially in his cruel teasing. So I gave him the benefit of the doubt and began to think I was reading too much into his ambiguous stories and his uneaten meal. That plate he’d left, however—the mass of food, that slop—disturbed me. He had hovered over the plate, lumped it and pushed it around, making it his own, then rejected it, making a sort of statement I needed to interpret—very Frank.

Yet my birthday. He had not mentioned it, nor had he given me a present, even a token, as he had often done in the past, like the key chain, or baseball cap, or ballpoint pen, logo items he’d gotten for free at luxury hotels. I knew they were cheesy mementos he’d regifted, yet they showed he remembered.

And my cobalt strike, the Idaho mine, a big payday—he had not said anything about that either; and stories of speculation, which mentioned me, had been in the business news that Frank habitually read when trawling for clients.

He had not asked about Vita, and in the past he had never failed to do so.

You think: Odd not to mention any of this, but one of Frank’s perversities was emphasizing the importance of something by not bringing it up. I wondered whether that was the case at this lunch, and of course there was the sight of his mangled plate of food that he’d left looking punished, an obvious power move.

That night I told Vita about the lunch—the stories, the uneaten food, the references that seemed directed at me. As we were going through a bad patch at the time, I suppose I was looking for sympathy.

“He’s a piece of work,” she said, yet before I could agree, she added, “But so are you.”

“It’s my birthday, Vee. He didn’t say a word about it.”

“That’s the sort of thing you might do.”

“Maybe by accident, but this seemed deliberate.”

“You forgot my birthday one year.”

“I was prospecting in Zambia, Vee!”

“Husband comes down with a severe case of amnesia in Zambia,” Vita said.

One of the characteristics of a troubled marriage is that wisps of half-remembered slights from the distant past appear fully formed and offensive in the present, to be marshaled as evidence.

“A lunch, Vee. A lunch where one of the lunchers doesn’t eat anything.”

“Maybe he wasn’t hungry.”

“The way he played with his food seemed hostile.”

“You play with your food sometimes,” she said.

“Vee, there was something unspoken at that lunch. It wasn’t just that he didn’t eat anything and told those stories about Dad. It was all oblique and empty, like a ritual.”

“Ritual,” she said, doubtful, as if I was overdramatizing the event. “Of what?”

“Of rejection. Like the sort of thing some tribe might do as a way of ostracizing someone in the clan. Except he was inventing the whole procedure, creating a tradition that had never existed before. The rejection ritual of the uneaten meal.”

“Oh god,” Vita said.

And that was the end of the discussion, from which I emerged unconsoled.

A few days later, Vita said, “We’re having a cookout on Saturday for Gabe and some of his friends. Why don’t you invite Frank?”

“He doesn’t like me.”

“But I like him,” she said, which was clearly a dig at me.

When I phoned him, Frank said he wasn’t sure he could make it and that he needed some time to think about it.

“Frank, it’s the day after tomorrow.”

“I’ll let you know,” he said. This hesitation was usually Frank’s way of indicating that he might get a better invitation in the meantime.

Vita said, “You’re so paranoid,” when I told her this.

I did not hear from Frank and assumed he was snubbing us. But on the morning of the cookout, he called and said, “See you later.”

He came carrying a small brown bag, and when he doffed his baseball cap, his lopsided face became fuller and more distorted, as he said hello in a grouchy way to me with one side while offering a twinkling gaze to Vita with the other. He went to the smoking grill and set down the bag. He removed two hot dogs and two bottles of beer, tossed the hot dogs on the grill and uncapped a beer, saying “Cheers” to Vita. The other side of his face still regarded me with displeasure.

Gabe and his friends waved from where they sat eating under a tree. Frank jerked his head at them, as he tonged the sweaty, split-open hot dogs onto a paper plate.

“Mustard?” I said.

“Bad for you. High fructose corn syrup,” he said to me, while his eyes searched for Vita.

“I wish there was something I could do to please you.”

Walking away, Frank said, “Piss in one hand, and make that wish with the other, and see which one fills up faster.”

As he stood at the far end of the swimming pool, drinking his second beer, I thought: He is here, but he is not here. And that was when Vita went over to him. They were too far away for me to hear anything they said, though once or twice Vita glanced at me, then looked back at Frank. And the way they stood, laughing, poking each other, they looked like husband and wife, or lovers.

Frank left, taking his brown bag and his two empty beer bottles with him, facing me, wordlessly winking and raising one eyebrow—the eyebrow flash he knew infuriated me.

“He hates me,” I said.

Vita said, “Ever think maybe it’s you?”

That was the second lunch.

Not long after, Vita said, “I need to tell you something.”

By then, I wasn’t happy anymore, so I knew exactly what she was going to say.

’s latest novel, The Bad Angel Brothers, from which this excerpt is taken, is out this month.


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