THE BROTHERS EVANGER
By Ken Wetherington (USA)
[1st Runner Up]
Even as a child, Alban lay awake most of the night and spent daytime hours drowsing in the classroom. His lessons suffered. I often mocked him. “You should be a rock star,” I teased, though he had no aptitude for music. I, the eldest, on the other hand, rose early and excelled at school. No achievement seemed beyond my grasp.
Our parents, Maximilian and Margaret Evanger, had forged long careers as lauded academics and pushed us to achieve extraordinary goals, assuring disappointment. Alban fell in with the wrong crowd at an early age. Into adulthood, he spent late nights drinking and carousing. I also failed to meet expectations, becoming a writer of popular novels. “Too easy,” our parents said, preferring deep, weighty treatises.
Financial success brought a parade of beautiful women to my bed. I chose one for my wife but did not forsake the others. In the beginning, my infidelity pained Maddie, but she grew accustomed to it and led her own life. Alban had his “tavern women” as our parents discreetly called them. We each claimed the most conquests as if that were truly the measure of a man.
Maddie and I arrived in Amsterdam on a Friday—my reading having been scheduled for the following afternoon. A knock at the door interrupted our unpacking despite the “Do Not Disturb” sign.
“Alban, what are you doing here? I thought you were in Miami. How did you get our room number?”
“Is that a suitable greeting, Virgil?”
“Sorry. Of course, it’s good to see you.” Behind me, I sensed Maddie’s irritation rising. They did not get along. Oil and water.
“Likewise.” He looked past me. “Hey, Maddie.” She forced a smile and resumed unpacking. Alban shifted his attention back to me. “I’m coming to your reading.”
“Uh … great.”
“Don’t get so excited.”
“We’re weary. Flying is tiresome and the time zones … you know how it is.”
“Okay, okay. I understand. See you tomorrow.”
After the door closed, Maddie muttered, “For once, he knew when to make himself scarce.”
The reading went well. They always did. The Q & A produced stale questions, and I cycled through canned replies. While signing copies, an attractive young woman slipped a card into my hand with a phone number and her name—Paula.
Dinner with our hosts proved boring, as usual. However, the elegant setting and superb cuisine nearly made up for it. We declined further socializing, citing an early flight the following day. Maddie complained of a headache and returned to the hotel. I fished Paula’s card from my pocket and called her. She suggested a nearby bar. Just as I disconnected, my phone buzzed and flashed Alban’s name.
“Hey, Virgil. Let’s meet up.”
I gave him the location of the bar. The prospect of competing with him for Paula’s favors drove my excitement. The advantage would be mine.
Despite the packed bar, I found Paula immediately. Her loose white blouse, unbuttoned to a salacious degree, and short skirt left no question of her intentions. I elbowed past a gaggle of barflies attempting to engage her. We took a couple of beers to a small table against the wall.
“I love your books.”
I had hoped for a more original line. “How old are you?”
“Nineteen. Are you going to ask me for an ID?”
Before I could respond, Alban emerged from the crowd. “Hey, Virgil, whacha got there?”
His question referred to Paula, though I pretended he meant my beer and waved the bottle. He frowned, and I made introductions.
Alban shot a sly wink at Paula. “I’m the poor relation of the famous author.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” I countered, giving Alban’s shoulder a brotherly squeeze. “What scheme were you working in Miami?”
“You make it sound as if I had been doing something underhanded. Real estate is the name of the game in Florida. Turning properties over can generate tons of cash out of thin air. But you have to stay on your toes.” He flashed his best smile in Paula’s direction. “I’m not an old married man like my brother. Still, he’s not very married when it’s convenient.”
Paula gave a tilt of her head and a shrug. “He’s a great writer.”
“Successful, you mean. There’s a difference. Just ask our parents.”
I sipped my beer and watched Alban do his damnedest to lure Paula away, weaving a concoction of exotic travels, celebrity friends, and luxury resorts. As impressive as it was, a trace of desperation crept into his tone. Finally, he conceded with, “The red-light district here is really famous. We should go. I’ll get a woman and we’ll have a group, um … encounter. Swapping might be interesting.”
Paula returned a nonchalant smile. “Interesting perhaps, but not my thing.”
“Okay, then. I’ll shove off. You kids have fun.”
Having bested Alban, I turned to Paula for my reward.
“Let’s go to my place,” she said. “My roommate’s away for the weekend.”
My father’s death caught me by surprise. I should have expected it. His health had been poor, though I couldn’t imagine him actually dying. A sense of freedom from his judgment vied with an undercurrent of unresolved issues.
I flew into New York from LA, where I had been living since separating from Maddie and took a room at the Madison. My father’s obit in The Times rolled out tributes from all over the world. Amazing how acclaimed writers, politicians, and mainstream media cycled through meaningless clichés. Rote sympathy.
I tried Mother’s number, but she didn’t answer. Then Alban called and agreed to meet in the hotel’s lounge. I arrived first and settled in with a bourbon. He came in a few minutes later. I hadn’t seen him since Amsterdam, seven years ago.
“Hi, Virgil. How are you holding up?”
“I’m okay. Have you talked with Mother?”
“Yeah. She’s taking it in her typical, stoic way.”
“Sounds like depression suppression to me.”
He smiled at my rhyme. “Sure, but Father would have wanted it that way.”
“You’re correct on that account. How about you, Alban?”
“Haven’t seen either of them in five years. In some ways, they’ve been dead to me for a long time.”
“I have that, as well, but there’s more to it. Something …”
“Are Maddie and Todd coming?”
“Yeah. Todd’s six, now, and I hardly know him.”
“Any chance of getting back together with Maddie?”
“None. She’s in a relationship, maybe engaged. What about you?”
“I’m seeing Shelia Dickinson.”
“Really, the Shelia Dickinson? Isn’t she a bit older than your usual girlfriends?”
“Yeah, but we’ve hit it off.”
“Wow. She must be worth hundreds of millions.”
“Yeah, more probably … It’s an easy life when you’re born into it. Uh … Virgil, I haven’t seen your last few books on the bestseller list.”
“Sales have been sluggish. Ideas feel stale. The critics never liked me, but they’ve been especially nasty lately.”
“Time to reinvent yourself, brother.”
“It’s hard. I’m lost.”
“You’ll find your way. Remember, you’re the smart one.”
“I need another drink.”
The rich and famous packed into the historic church: distinguished academics, a couple of Nobelists, and an ex-president. I endured the ceremony and afterward accepted a barrage of condolences. Mother returned my embrace with a stiff hug. She thanked me as if I were one of the guests. Maddie, looking spectacular in black, offered the briefest of commiserations, and Todd shook my hand. My son had become a stranger. They slipped away as soon as decently possible.
Alban fared better. He mingled easily and schmoozed with many of the attendees, probably sharing phony anecdotes of our lives with Father. For once, I envied him. He invited me to dinner, but I declined.
My familial obligations having been discharged, an evening of solitary drinking began to appeal to me. While I waited on the sidewalk for a cab, a well-dressed, middle-aged woman peered curiously at me.
“It is you. I thought so. I love your books.”
“Thank you. It’s nice to meet my readers.”
“Sorry to hear about your dad.”
Suddenly, I didn’t want to be alone. “Uh … I have no plans. Allow me to take you to dinner. What’s your name?”
She lit up like Times Square. “Eleanor Duncan.” Then timidly, “Ellie.”
Despite her stated intention of getting to know me, she chattered without pause at the restaurant and afterward in the cab. By the time we reached my hotel room, I had learned a lot about her—a librarian with a driving passion for the written word. She knew nothing of me, beyond my books. That didn’t stop us from ending up in bed.
I awoke early to the rhythm of her light snoring. I had become accustomed to younger women but found an easy pleasure with Ellie. And she looked good for her age—not as trim as my usual partners, but on an impulse, I invited her to accompany me on an upcoming promotional circuit.
In Cincinnati, I passed on an opportunity to bed down a young fan. But in San Francisco, I left Ellie alone one night when a stunning redhead lured me back to her apartment. When I showed up in the morning, Ellie took it in stride. “I know the kind of life you lead,” she said.
As the tour wore on, I found myself drawn into a dependency on Ellie. Bit by bit, she took charge of my calendar and other mundane tasks. On the final day, I proposed marriage and vowed to cease my philandering. She didn’t believe my promise but accepted anyway.
We kept the ceremony small with just Alban, Shelia and a handful of Ellie’s relatives. Mother’s health prevented her from traveling. After a short honeymoon in the Caribbean, we embarked on another book tour.
Marriage to Ellie surprised me. One-night stands with adoring young women began to feel superficial. I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind on many occasions to stray, but as the weeks and months passed, my bond with Ellie grew.
Book sales continued to diminish. I cranked out novels faster than ever, seeking quantity over quality. Each, however, sold fewer copies than the previous. Thank God, Ellie had good financial instincts. With some astute investments and downsizing our lifestyle, we evaded the specter of bankruptcy. How did my fame and wealth slip away so quickly?
Then Mother died. Her will splintered the family fortune, much of it going to various academic institutions and liberal political causes. Alban and I each received a ridiculously small amount. By that time, he had married Shelia and had no financial worries. After Mother’s funeral, Ellie and I met them at Shelia’s New York penthouse apartment.
“Whew, I’m weary of Mother’s boring friends,” I said. “Thank God, we’ll never have to see any of them again.”
Alban screwed his face into a grimace. “Yeah, they’re a pretentious lot.”
A servant brought a tray of wine and discreetly withdrew.
Shelia shrugged. “Some of them are not so bad.”
I sipped the wine and nodded my approval. “They’re more your people than mine.”
Shelia lived the jet-set life, with several homes spread across two continents. She and Alban seemed happy enough, though I suspected her wealth drove much of his attraction. How could it not?
“Ellie, may I give you a tour of the place? The guys need some brotherly time.”
When the women had withdrawn, Alban placed his wine glass on the coffee table and adopted a serious tone. “I didn’t see Maddie or Todd. Did they come?”
“No. Todd’s in college at Stanford. Maddie remarried … an investment banker. I hear they’re vacationing somewhere in Europe.”
“It sucks. I can’t find the old magic. My agent thinks I should do some ghostwriting, but that’s more than I can bear.”
“Fuck off, Alban. I’m a writer, not a pornographer.”
“Just a suggestion.”
“That’s not a suggestion. It’s a surrender.”
“You need a change. Get out of your rut.”
“What about you? Are you and Shelia doing okay?”
Alban tilted forward and whispered. “She’s a bitch sometimes.” He leaned back. “But she looks great, and life is easy. Got this penthouse, a mansion in LA with a large swimming pool, not to mention an apartment in Paris. I get to rub elbows with some of the Hollywood elite. What could be better? You guys are still in Laurel Canyon, right?”
“We were never in the Canyon. It’s too expensive. We’re further out.”
“We’ll have you over for our next party. You can meet some of the stars.”
“Uh … thank you. Right now, I have to focus on writing. Got to slow down and do something special to find my footing.”
Ellie glanced up from the manuscript. “Dammit, Virgil, this is crap. Just like the last one, your protagonist is too much of a saint. Nobody’s that good. All your characters are cardboard. You don’t write about real people anymore.”
“I don’t know any real people. I’ve been …” I blew out a big sigh. Ellie’s honesty kept me grounded. “I need something to shake me up.”
Ellie plopped the manuscript onto the table. “We’ve been invited to Alban’s party next Saturday. I guess we’ll have to go, but I don’t look forward to the tedium of mingling with those celebrities. They only talk about themselves.”
“We’ll think of some reason to cancel.” I picked up the manuscript and began the laborious process of editing, without expectation of whipping it into an acceptable form.
The week passed. Ennui thwarted our intent to fabricate a credible excuse for declining Alban’s invitation. On the appointed day, we rolled up to Shelia’s mansion and surrendered our car to the valet. Shelia, ever the perfect hostess, introduced us to several movie stars. Their small talk revolved around vacations abroad, latest fashions, and current projects. Before long, we drifted to the fringe of the gathering.
Ellie tapped my shoulder. “Look at Alban. He’s talking with Erica Lake.”
“He’s flirting. I recognize that posture and those mannerisms. He’d better be careful, or Shelia will dump him.”
“They’re just talking. It looks innocent to me.”
“I know my brother. He’s trying to get her into bed.”
“He’s got stiff competition. I saw Erica getting cozy with Cliff Bain a little while ago.”
From behind me, a voice spoke softly. “Virgil Evanger?” A striking young woman stood at my elbow.
“Yes … I’m afraid I don’t …”
“That’s okay, Mr. Evanger. We haven’t met.”
Her radiance obliterated everyone else. It took a few moments to come to my senses. “Call me Virgil, please.” Though I had been faithful to Ellie for years, I began to—
Ellie touched my arm. “Uh, Virgil …”
“Oh, this is Ellie.”
The young woman gave her a disarming smile and refocused on me. “My name’s Megan. Todd was a year ahead of me at Stanford. Our paths didn’t cross, but I loved his book.”
“Really? Does anyone actually read poetry?”
She frowned. “Aren’t you proud of him?”
“Our family doesn’t work like that. We’re fairly competitive. He’ll never reach my level of success by writing poetry.”
Megan took a step backward. “Uh … nice to meet you. I’ve got to go.” She disappeared into the crowd.
Ellie gave me a puzzled look. “What happened? I thought you were going to seduce her.”
“I don’t know. She mentioned Todd, and I … I don’t know what happened.”
“Shelve that ego, Virgil. She wants Todd, not you, but I assumed you would try to screw her anyway.”
“This party’s a bore. Let’s say goodbye to Alban and Shelia.”
My phone buzzed and flashed Alban’s name. I ignored it. It had been a month since the party, and my new manuscript had stalled. The last thing I wanted was to be reminded of Alban’s good fortune. Then it buzzed again. I gave up and answered.
“Hey, Alban. What’s up?”
“Can you come over?” His voice shook.
I could guess his trouble. Shelia had been linked in social media gossip with Lawrence Fuller. “I’m trying to write. Some other time. Okay?”
“I need you.” His pleading tone surprised me.
I let out an exasperated sigh. “Alright. I’ll be there soon.”
In LA, “soon” was a relative term. Stalled traffic had virtually turned interstates into parking lots. At his gated driveway, I punched in the pass code. He met me at the front door with a drink in hand.
“Butler off today?”
He pulled me inside as if he feared someone seeing us. “C-come in.” Tottering, he led me to a roomful of plush furniture. Stately portraits and landscapes on the walls commanded the hushed reverence of a museum. He plopped down on a sofa and began to sob. I couldn’t recall ever seeing him cry.
“It’s Shelia,” he croaked.
No surprise there. I moved to his side and touched his shoulder. “It’ll be okay. Shelia was a dream, but there’ll be another. I had a tough go of it when Maddie left me.”
“B-but, she’s … she’s in the pool.”
“I don’t understand. Is she leaving you or are you leaving her?”
“She’s … uh, been there a long time.”
Shit. The truth hit me. I withdrew my hand and sat silently, lost in the surreal moment. He wanted me to—
“Could … could you check on her?” he asked.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Sure.”
“Call an ambulance if she needs it.”
As I surmised, her body floated languidly, facedown in the swimming pool. A half-full bottle of scotch and an empty glass rested on a poolside table along with a folded towel.
The EMS crew arrived promptly and performed their grim task with quotidian efficiency. After the ambulance left with Shelia’s body, I returned to Alban.
“Alban, the police will arrive soon. Tell me what happened.”
“I-I think she fell in. You’ve got to tell them that you found her. It’ll look bad if it was me.”
“She caught me with another woman. But … but she was having an affair, too.”
“Goddammit. What does it matter who discovered her? The cops will grill you about what happened before she went into the pool.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. Say you were visiting and saw her go out to the pool.”
“Jesus, I can’t lie like that to the police.” I wanted to believe my brother, but—
“Come on, Virgil,” he pleaded. “At least, say you found her.”
“I can’t, Alban.”
“Well, you did find her, and you made the call.”
“Dammit, you’re pulling me into this. Why do you need an alibi if it was an accident?”
“You can say you went out to the pool to say hello. That’s close enough to the truth.”
“No, not really. They’ll ask why I was here.”
“Uh, uh, say I wanted you to come over and listen to me talk about my marital problems. God knows that stuff has been all over the media.”
The police arrived shortly, and with some trepidation, I confirmed Alban’s story. As he said, it was close enough to the truth. When it came out that he had given the servants the day off, it looked suspicious. But in public and private, he stuck to his story.
The coroner concluded a probable accidental drowning. The fallout persisted in the news for nearly six months, but the authorities filed no charges. Most of Shelia’s money went to her three siblings. Despite that, Alban received a significant inheritance. He brushed the rust off his real estate skills and continued his accustomed lifestyle.
Because my name had been dragged into the case, some of my older titles enjoyed a brief spurt of popularity. As they say, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
I had last seen Todd before college. His second volume of poetry had exceeded his first, both critically and popularly. One of his poems had been set to music and turned up in a Broadway show. He stood on the brink of rock star status.
I wedged into the standing-room-only crowd at the bookstore and listened to his reading. Poetry had never excited me, but he read it well, summoning compelling images with every line. The audience ate it up. When the vigorous and sustained applause finally died, I felt a nudge in my back.
“The prodigal father returns.”
“Oh, hi, Maddie. You look great.” It was the truth.
“Virgil, this is my husband, Kevin Walters.”
The tall, distinguished-looking man extended his hand. “I like your novels.”
“Uh, thanks.” Did he mean it? I couldn’t tell. After a short exchange of pleasantries, I excused myself, saying, “I guess I should congratulate Todd.”
He sat at a table, signing copies and brushing off an avalanche of praise. I caught his eye, and he signaled that I should wait. It took the better part of an hour for the line of adoring readers to dissipate. After the final signature, he motioned. I followed him to the rear of the shop and into a storage room lined with shelves of books. Among a chaotic assembly of spare store furniture, we found a couple of chairs.
“Excellent reading,” I said. “Your fans loved it.”
“It went well. They always do.”
“Todd, I, uh … I’ve made mistakes. I wasn’t very good to your mom, and I’ve been absent from your life.”
“I know. She knows. Everyone knows.” Silence stretched for a few awkward moments. “She made a prediction a few years ago.”
“She said you would return some day, and I should forgive you for your absence.”
“Really? She said that?”
“Yes.” Todd rubbed his forehead. “So, that’s what I’m doing. She said there are a lot of bad people in the world, but you’re not one of them. I mean, we all have our flaws.” His words stunned me. He reached over and put his hand on mine. “Your parents … my grandparents didn’t do such a great job with you and Uncle Alban. The pressure you must have felt. When your turn came to be a parent, you didn’t have a great role model. Parenting’s hard. I’ll probably screw it up, too.”
“You have a girlfriend?”
He withdrew his hand. “Yes. We’re engaged. You’ll be invited to the wedding. It’d make Mom happy to see you there.”
“Is she okay with … uh, what’s his name?”
“Kevin, Kevin Walters. Yes, they’re good together. Uncle Alban will be invited, too, if he’s not in prison.”
“God, I hope he doesn’t go to prison. The Feds had their eyes on him after Shelia, uh, died. He says those financial charges are trumped up. I’m not sure if he broke laws or just bent the rules.”
Todd sighed deeply. “Sometimes I’m angry with him, but mostly, I just feel sorry for him.”
“Yeah, Todd, me too.”
“Listen, I’ve got to meet Megan. We have a function to attend. Just for the record, I find it hard to call you Dad. Is Virgil okay?”
“Sure, Todd.” I stuck out my hand for a shake. He ignored it and we hugged. “Good luck with your book tour.”
“Is it true, Alban?”
“Hell no. They’re a bunch of liars.”
I shifted the phone to my other ear. “There are about a half-dozen women who have come forward. That’s troubling.”
“Fuck them. Be glad you’re not rich. Those bitches come out of the woodwork and do their best to pry it from you. Goddamn blackmail is what it is.”
“These cases are going to be more difficult to resolve than your, uh, financial issues.”
“Fuck them, too.”
“Uh, I’ve got to go, Alban. Ellie’s waiting.” It was a lie.
Lately, conversations with my brother had become rather circular. I wished I could believe him. Evidence, however, had been mounting. Even with the most optimistic of outcomes, he faced months, if not years, of courtroom battles.
I laid the phone on my desk and picked up the wedding invitation. Damn, New York, again. Todd had reestablished connections with many of my parents’ friends and acquaintances—those who were still alive. I didn’t want to see them. Their successes dwarfed my own career, which had settled into a succession of mediocre novels. A few longtime fans still read them, but the reviewers no longer bothered.
Ellie reminded me that we had met Megan at Alban’s party. God, I had been so rude to her. No doubt, she remembered. Ugh, no way to duck the invite. I hoped they were in love.
The wedding took place in the same church where both of my parents had been eulogized. The ceremony sparkled with energy. Neither of mine had achieved such elegance and pageantry. I kissed the bride and bestowed compliments and best wishes upon the golden couple. Thankfully, Megan did not mention our earlier encounter. Alban did not attend.
If you’re rich enough or famous enough, you can get away with murder and white-collar crimes. Sexual assault proved a little more costly, but Alban had the resources to fend off his accusers with financial settlements. I don’t know how many crimes he actually committed, but the sheer volume of charges told me that some of them must be true.
In the aftermath, many of his Hollywood friends edged away. Big parties ceased, and he withdrew from everyone. I called a few times, but his reticence made short work of the conversations. He lived alone in Shelia’s mansion, kind of like a male Norma Desmond. How sad his life had become. He changed the name of his real estate firm to hide his involvement and continued to prosper.
Ellie and I managed to live well enough, though not extravagantly. It had been two years since my last book when Todd called.
“Hi, Virgil. May we stop by? I need your assistance.”
“Beats me how I can help, but sure. Are you in town?”
“Close enough. I can be there in a couple of hours.”
Three hours later, the doorbell rang. Todd and Megan waved off the offer of wine, and Ellie led Megan off somewhere. Todd and I settled on the screened-in back deck, looking out over a small pond on our property and breathed in the gorgeous fall afternoon.
Todd opened with, “I’m writing a book.”
“That’s hardly news. You’re always writing a book.”
“It’s not poetry this time.”
“I hope you don’t need advice from me on fiction. My writing sucks these days.”
“It’s not fiction. It’ll be more of an autobiography.”
“Aren’t you a little young for that? Why don’t you delay it until you’ve lived a full life?”
“It won’t be entirely about me. I’ll start with Grandfather and Grandmother.”
Funny. I had spent my life running away from my parents, but now Todd wanted to open that closed door. “I’d be a villain, I guess.”
“I don’t think so. Not entirely, anyway. You were a victim of your parents and a villain with Mom.”
I couldn’t deny that. “So, what do you want from me?”
“Your story. Your version. Your insights. I want to be fair.”
“And Uncle Alban?”
“He won’t talk to me, but I’ll reach out to those who have known him. I’ll send a copy of the manuscript to him before it goes to the publisher. He’ll have a chance to weigh in.”
“You’re going to write this book whether I help or not, right?”
“Yeah. I’m searching for my own past, my own identity. I feel compelled to do it.”
“Then, I guess I’m bound to pitch in.”
Growing Up Evanger exploded on the bestseller lists and accumulated countless awards. Todd appeared on talk shows, displaying a sharp wit and easy manner. Somehow, he had absorbed the best aspects of our family and excised the demons.
Interviewers even sought me out. I couldn’t claim any credit for Todd’s success and deferred to Maddie’s wisdom in raising him. When questions about Alban’s troubles inevitably cropped up, I refused to comment, saying only that I loved my brother.
The best of my early novels came back into print. Surprisingly, Hollywood called with a movie deal. An Oscar nomination for the screenplay adaptation revived my career. More offers followed, and I discovered a knack for adapting existing material—not only my own but works by others as well. Money poured in, but Ellie and I retained our distance from LA, preferring a leisurely lifestyle.
A year later, Megan gave birth to twin boys—another generation of brothers waiting to take their turn on the inescapable Evanger stage.