Volume 17
An Online Literary Magazine
March 6, 2023

 

The Bad Angel Brothers

Fiction

Paul Theroux

 


Purchase Paul Theroux's The Bad Angel Brothers at https://www.indiebound.org/.

 

 

Y
ou’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 hated to answer, he’d say, “Look in the mirror and ask yourself that.” I was tempted today, but 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, and he later told it 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?”

 

He’s a high-functioning asshole, I wanted to say, but instead, to be noncommittal, “He’s my big brother.” I was not a talker. I was the elusive brother, the geologist, who’d left home to be a rock hunter, and an adventurer in the extractive industries.

 

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 whoppers.

 

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 unsmoked half pack of 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 later Yurick became a billionaire, as a pioneer innovator in digital media. The story was mine—it was I, hiking with Yurick, who’d stanched the blood on his gashed hand 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 from personal injury and medical malpractice suits. 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, usually poor people; so justice was money, punishment was money, reward was money, morality was money, love was money. His admiring clients quoted his well-known remark, with approval: I bite people on the neck for a living.

 

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 and 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 our meeting for lunch, always at the Littleford Diner—he’d once owned a part interest in “the spoon,” as he sometimes called it, short for “the greasy spoon.” 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, which are devastating within the family yet mean nothing to an outsider.

 

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 e-mail, 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, taking samples of gravel from dry riverbeds in the Arizona desert, testing them 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 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 had begun to be the dominant one in the family.

 

I disliked his insistence, his barking an order, so I did not reply to this lunch invitation. I was well aware that my silence would annoy him, since he was used to being listened to and, more than that, obeyed, always getting his way.

 

I was in my study, at my desk when Vita pushed open the door and said, “Got a minute?” This is always for me a daunting question, 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, small children sitting in 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 imagery 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 distinct 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, saw 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 happened. 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 different 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 in our marriage? 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 substance 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. It meant 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 and, when I tried to hug him, squirming 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. I felt 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 this 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 e-mailed 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.

 

“Okay, I’ll go.”

 

“You might learn something.”

 

 

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 in 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 come earlier—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 any of them: I was Fidge, with all that name implied.

 

Rather than a handshake, Frank gave my fingers a saucy little slap, cuffing them with the back of his hand and not a word but a snort-honk of recognition.

 

“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 condiments. He sat with his hands folded in a prayerful posture and lowered his head. 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 his baldness—and cold eyes, swagged downward in a frown; the left part of his face uplifted in a smile, the contradictory face you see in 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, very intimidating to a witness and very persuasive to a jury. His angular expression operating independently, 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 was 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 asymmetric, 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.

 

As his brother, I often studied my face in the mirror and talked to myself, to see if my face was separated in the same lopsided way. But it wasn’t, and I concluded that Frank’s had become like that over decades of equivocation, the way a habitual smiler acquires laugh lines, or a doubtful one a permanent scowl.

 

“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, 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. “And what else can I do you for?”

 

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

 

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

 

“Still or sparkling?”

 

“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 glass of 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, using 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 this conversation, my interest waned, I found this painful to hear, as though 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 was an example of 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 that; 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 disparaging 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 fifty something 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. His statement was assertive, but his eyes looked unsure, as with the Dad story of debt, and the one about Dad using a kitchen knife as a screwdriver, and lunching the car door, and the obnoxious aside about the waitress’s pay.

 

Dumping oyster crackers into my chowder, I 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 poking at his fish and not eating, I was thrown, and in this delay, as though Frank was trying to find out if the fish was edible, I 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, and he did this studiously, with a faint scowl of disgust on his lips.

 

I wondered whether he’d ask me about my son, 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 potato, squaring the sides, hollowing out the middle, roofing it with flakes of his broken fish.

 

Just then a shadow fell over our booth, a man in a fedora, leaning toward Frank. “Sorry to interrupt.”

 

Frank looked up and at once his face glowed with lunchtime charm, its opposing features seeming to resolve into a smooth smiling whole of welcome. He dropped his fish knife and lifted both hands to enclose the extended hand of the man who’d happened by.

 

“Well-met, well-met!” Frank said, sounding warmly grateful, and he hung on, tugging the man’s hand. It was Dante Zangara, an old school friend of Frank’s who’d been a politician in Littleford for years and was now the mayor. Zangara greeted me, a casual fist bump with his free hand, saying, “Who’s this stranger?” but Frank was still talking excitedly.

 

“Who said, ‘The art of public life consists of knowing exactly when to stop, and then going a bit further?’” And with visible reluctance he released Zangara’s hand.

 

“Search me,” Zangara said. He had small close-set eyes over a hawk nose, and a way of licking his thin lips and spacing his words that made him seem as though he was speaking to someone taking dictation. “But, hey, I would not call that guy a chadrool. Listen, how’s the family?”

 

“Never better,” Frank said, a sweetness in his voice. “What about la famiglia, Zangara?”

 

“Connie’s a wreck.” Zangara raised his arms in an operatic gesture of despair. “Gina’s applying to college.”

 

“How can I help?” Frank said. He seemed to levitate in his seat, rising toward Zangara, his intense gaze fixed on the man.

 

“She wants to go to Willard, maybe study veterinary science. The kid’s nuts about animals.”

 

“I know a guy,” Frank said. “He has the ear of the dean of admissions. I could write a reference.”

 

“Frank, that would be fantastic.”

 

“A distinct honor,” Frank said. “Gina will make all of us proud.”

 

They hugged, awkwardly, because Frank was still in the booth, canted forward, the table edge jammed against his thighs, Zangara toppling, and then breaking free.

 

“The Bad Angel brothers,” Zangara said, straightening his jacket, coming to attention, with a little salute, touching his hat brim in homage. A high school nickname is forever, and it annoyingly defines you when you’re still living in your hometown. “You guys are fabulous.”

 

When this sunny visitation ended, and Zangara left the diner, Frank seemed to subside and become smaller, twisting himself back into his seat, to resume toying with his food. He’d fallen silent, but still was not eating.

 

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 six-point chair, a nasogastric feeding 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, by the U.S. and others on prisoners, and it was deemed torture—cruel, inhumane, and degrading.

 

 

That was the first lunch. I was puzzled. 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 his 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, and 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 as he often did, even a token, as in the past, like the key chain, or baseball cap, or ballpoint pen, logo items he’d gotten free at a luxury hotel. 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 speculation, mentioning 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 said, “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 African tribe might do as a way of ostracizing someone in the clan. Except he was inventing the whole procedure, like 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 to invite 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 side. He went to the smoking grill and setting down the bag, he removed two hot dogs and two bottles of beer. He 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 from 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 and 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.

 

 

I start this way, with these long-ago lunches, when Frank and I were in our late fifties, because it was a turning point, deliquescing into something I never expected. And to give a glimpse of how odd, oblique, and unreadable Frank was, I guessed there was much more to know and wondered whether I’d find out what it was. And why, in the end, I wanted him dead.

 

But I have to go back to the beginning, in Littleford, when it was just the two of us.

 

 

Paul Theroux is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River, Jungle Lovers, and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod.

 

Excerpted from The Bad Angel Brothers. Copyright 2022 by Paul Theroux All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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